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Berkeley City Council Takes Up Energy, Gardens and Housing

By Charlotte Perry-Houts
Thursday October 21, 2010 - 09:31:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council began this Tuesday evening with a special work session on green energy, followed by a regular meeting in which a new Housing Element was moved forward. Councilmember Max Anderson was absent due to an illness. 

During the work session the council heard from advocates of implementing a regional Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), a system where municipalities could form an authority that would purchase energy for resale to local residents and businesses. CCAs have the potential of delivering renewable energy more efficiently than PG&E, although it is difficult to predict how big that improvement could be. Under a CCA, power would still be delivered by a local utility, and all energy customers in the area would automatically become CCA customers unless they specifically opted out. Marin County began operating its CCA earlier this year, making it the only operating CCA in California. 

This plan is one of many responses to California's recently adopted renewable energy standards, which mandate that 33% of energy should come from renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric by the year 2020. The main goal of the CCA is to increase demand for renewable energy, leading to an increase in supply. Because of tax incentives for production of renewable energy, generation of this energy is left primarily to the private sector, and is currently in relatively short supply. 

Prices for renewable energy are generally higher than prices for fossil fuels, raising concerns that residents might have to deal with higher energy bills. San Rafael Vice Mayor Damon Connolly explained that in Marin, residents are either “light green” customers, the default option that buys 25% renewable energy at the same rate as PG&E, or “deep green” customers, who get 100% renewable energy for what amounts to about five extra dollars per month. The city of Berkeley Energy Commission said that it would be difficult for CCA to maintain PG&E rates, and recommended postponing the decision on whether or not to participate in CCA for the time being to observe its implementation in Marin. 

Connolly pointed out that Marin County provides 78% greenhouse gas emissions-free energy to 10% of its customers, compared to 51% greenhouse gas emissions-free energy offered by PG&E. Ontario Smith, principal strategic planner from PG&E, pointed out that Marin's 78% greenhouse gas emissions-free energy is only secured for 2010, while PG&E's supply is consistently progressing toward 20% and 33%. 

PG&E spent $46.1 million endorsing proposition 16, this June's ballot initiative to require a 2/3 vote before a public agency (like CCA) could enter the retail power business, which was defeated. 

The Office of Energy and Sustainable Development (OESD) gave a presentation about recent accomplishments of the Berkeley Climate Action Plan (CAP). Most notably, the program has been used to secure $6.5 million in grant money over the last year to be used for increasing the city's energy efficiency. Residential energy use is down 8% between 2000 and 2008, with natural gas use down 15%, a result, they said, of improvements in homes including better insulation and more efficient lights and appliances. Berkeley has increased its car share locations from 5 in 2002 to 50 today, and 166 businesses are certified green businesses, compared to 8 in 2002. The OESD is trying to encourage the community to visit to learn about the goals and achievements of the CAP. 

During the Regular Meeting, the Council honored Blythe Lucero, head coach of the Berkeley Barracudas swim team. Lucero drew a large crowd of supporters, including kids and parents from her swim team, friends, colleagues, and her dad. The Council also honored the 20th anniversary of UpSurge jazz-poetry ensemble, declaring this Sunday, October 24th, 2010 UpSurge day. UpSurge will be performing on Sunday at the Freight & Salvage at 8:00 pm. 

The first public comment addressed the recently escalated problem of vandalism, thefts, assaults, and building code violations by the young homeless population of the People's Park area. “Just the other day, we watched the landlord next door get pushed against the fence with – well, choked by one of the local people,” said one resident. The Council unanimously voted to refer the investigation of the issue and the consideration of creating a policy disincentive for repeat violations to the city manager. Mayor Bates had to recuse himself on the item because one of the parties involved owns property near him. 

Next the Council discussed Councilmember Arreguin's plan to encourage community gardening, which would allow people to sell unprocessed, garden-grown foods in residential areas. There was some concern about the details of such a plan, but the Council voted unanimously to refer the proposed zoning amendments to the Planning Commission for review and a recommendation. 

The Council also voted unanimously to support Councilmember Worthington's item referring the possibility of the establishment of a “Public Safety Zone” to the City Manager. The Public Safety Zone would be a place for people to go to get help particularly when being followed or threatened while driving an automobile. It was inspired by road rage incidents where people were followed and assaulted by angry drivers. 

Finally, the Council heard a public hearing brought to them from the Planning Commission on the new 2009-2014 Housing Element. The Housing Element had received a virtually unanimous vote from the Planning Commission, a unanimous vote from the Housing Advisory Commission, and a pre-approval from the Department of Housing and Community Development, meaning that it meets the requirements of state law. Once the Council approves the element, it will be sent on to the state for final review and certification. 

After a very brief presentation from the Planning Commission, the Council briefly debated and unanimously approved an amendment to the element proposed by Councilmember Arreguin. The amendment adds the statement that “decent and affordable housing is a basic human right.” Councilmember Worthington commented, “these words are being debated in Congress, and having them on record through the City Council saying the exact same words that there's fights in Congress over … is a positive step forward.” The meeting was concluded as the amended Housing Element was unanimously approved by the Council, which then proceeded into Closed Session.