By Pai Ferreira, 2014 SF Fellow
Energy is part of our everyday lives yet in the developed world many of us take it for granted. When I was placed in the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) Power Enterprise my first reaction was a feeling of uncertainty because I thought I had no power industry background. In a sense, this feeling is not necessarily true because everyone has some level of power knowledge. My perspective started to shift as I begin to learn more about the Power business and its important contribution towards the city’s goal of green development and energy reliability.
As a branch of the SFPUC, the Power Enterprise’s major role is to provide municipal power to the various city facilities like the MTA, San Francisco Public Library, City Hall, General Hospitals, etc. This makes one think that keeping the lights on is an effort to support economic development. To have a vibrant working city there needs to be good energy resources. Most of the power the SFPUC receives is from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir via hydropower. The process of converting that power into energy and have it delivered to a facility’s socket is quite amazing.
Learning about how the Power Enterprise functions made me reflect on the things I have learned in school in relation to the energy industry; in particular, a chapter on structuralism and privatization of public goods. One of the documentaries we watched was on the privatization of power in Nigeria. It highlighted an underserved, impoverished, and economically challenged neighborhood and followed their struggle with skyrocketing electrical prices which ultimately led to electricity not being affordable for the residents. When the Nigerian government approved privatization of the electrical industry, the decision was accompanied with minimally regulations. The bottom line came down to those who could not pay will not get power. This business principle of cutthroat profit seeking caused a lot of negative externalities. For example, during the summer months many of the locals could not afford electricity to power their fans, which disproportionately affected the elderly, sick, and children. Additionally, work cannot efficiently get done after the sun went down. It was humbling to watch a young school girl describe her challenges of doing homework by candle light because her family’s electricity was shut off.
The documentary helped to reinforce the idea that power is an essential element for economic development. The people in the developed world often miss this connection and take having “easily-accessible” power for granted. My placement and past studies helped me to make this meaningful connection.