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Sustainability Plan / Energy, Climate Change and Ozone Depletion / Introduction

 There are two main reasons why today’s patterns of energy use cannot be sustained over the long term:
  1. Non-renewable energy sources: Most of the energy people use comes from making withdrawals from a “savings account” of fossil fuels which took millions of years to build up, and which will eventually run out.

  2. Climate change & toxic buildup: Many of the energy-conversion technologies San Franciscans rely upon generate waste products which may lead to climate change, are toxic, or both. This will leave behind an atmosphere laden with ozone-layer-destroying gasses, and chemical or nuclear waste dumps.

Society will have reached sustainability in energy
when it is living on the energy budget set by the natural supply of solar energy (harvested directly as sunlight converted to heat or electricity, or indirectly through wind, water or vegetation converted to fuel).

It might be argued that the first problem, finite fossil fuel resources, can be left to later generations, who will convert to sustainable sources when fossil fuels run out. Yet, even if our reserves of fossil fuels were infinite, the second part of the problem, climate change and toxic releases, would force a move away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy resources. Fossil fuels would not be quite so cheap as they are today if the bill for the environmental and health problems they generate were included in the price. While an understanding of the potentially costliest problems of all -- global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, and the breakdown of living systems due to the buildup of toxics -- are still at an early stage, in the decade it may take to accumulate definitive and accurate ways of assessing the “true costs” of fossil fuel use, irreparable damage may be done.

One way to address the needed change is to increase people’s energy bills to pay for more expensive renewable sources. However, there is an alternative. By improving the efficiency with which energy is used, energy bills can be held steady or even lowered, even if the rate charged for each increment of power goes up. “Energy efficiency” doesn’t just mean more efficient conversion of energy to use (for example, a new light bulb which gives the same amount of light for half the power input); it also means only using power where and when it’s really needed (for example, using automated sensors to turn on only the lights that are needed at the time).

While it is often cheaper to increase the pool of available energy through investing in energy efficiency than by building a power plant, to date, the action of the marketplace has not automatically led to this choice. Among the complicating factors:

  • Energy cost-accounting conventions are very different between building developers (who make decisions on efficiency of design) and power-plant operators (who produce the power);

  • There are few incentives in the commercial building industry for energy efficiency because the firm that builds the building is seldom the one which ultimately pays the utility bills; and

  • If pay-back on the cost of a major energy-efficient appliance is more than two or three years, homeowners who anticipate selling their homes run a risk of losing their investments, since the appliance cost has little influence on the sales price.

  • Energy use has an impact on air quality, and the use of hydroelectric power has an impact on riparian (streamside) habitat and fish populations.

Overcoming these barriers will create an economic bonus. By investing in energy efficiency rather than energy generating capacity, the energy dollars remain in the San Francisco economy, rather than leaving to pay for power and fuel produced elsewhere. The City has a role to play through incentives and other programs, helping overcome the imperfections in the market that lead to energy waste.

The energy-specific goals set out in the sustainability strategy support several basic principles of sustainable systems which apply to all aspects of our society. Everything living has an important role to play in the balance in which all species thrive. In our society, the energy system has purpose only if the society thrives. Therefore, all members of our culture must be valued. Specifically, this can mean supporting measures which provide everyone a job at a livable wage. Within the context of energy this means providing affordable energy services for everyone. The energy aspect of that support has been expressed in the following principles:

  • Ensure that basic energy services are available to all residents;

  • Promote local employment and local economic development;

  • Promote local, democratic participation and control of energy policy;

  • Pursue approaches that maintain the City’s diversity and share the burdens of the energy system fairly among neighbors; and

  • Promote an energy system that is reliable in times of natural or man-made disruptions by emphasizing diverse, small-scale energy sources, storage, and distribution methods.

Energy use in San Francisco is divided among commercial buildings, residential buildings, and transportation. Since transportation is addressed in another section of this plan, this section addresses buildings only.