Salesforce blesses San Francisco's clean energy program

Golden Gate and the San Francisco bay covered by fog, the financial district skyline in the background, the Salesforce tower almost finished, as seen from the Marin Headlands State Park, California

Software giant Salesforce, the largest employer in San Francisco, is switching two of its high-rise office buildings in the City by the Bay to 100 percent renewable wind and solar energy via a local community choice aggregation program.

The company is the largest business yet to opt into the SuperGreen level of the not-for-profit CleanPowerSF initiative introduced by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in May 2016.

The service makes use of the transmission lines owned by local utility Pacific Gas & Electric to transmit electricity directly from renewable resources to homes and businesses. Residential customers pay 2 cents per kilowatt-hour to source this service, while businesses pay 1.4 cents more per kilowatt-hour, according to an informational web site about the SuperGreen service. PG&E offers a similar program, called SolarChoice. The power offered under CleanPowerSF comes from a number of sources, including the city's Sunset Solar Array.

Salesforce's chief philanthropy officer and executive vice president for corporate relations, Suzanne DiBianca, characterized the decision to switch as one driven largely by the company's interest in convincing other local employers and individuals to switch to renewables more aggressively.

"By choosing SuperGreen, we hope to show that when cities and companies work together to reach sharing climate goals the partnership has a unique ability to create positive impact that extends to the surrounding communities and ecosystems," she said in a statement.  

The CleanPowerSF program added 75,000 customers last year. It offers another program, called Green, that guarantees that 40 percent of the power is generated by renewables. The SuperGreen level is Green-e Energy certified.

Community choice aggregation programs pool together the demand for renewable energy across a region or city in order to source electricity from more than one project. San Francisco is hoping for close to 100 percent participation in the CleanPowerSF program by 2019, representing about 350,000 accounts. The city has set a target of sourcing at least 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Other governments in Silicon Valley — in San Francisco, San Mateo, Marin and Alameda counties — are exploring the community choice aggregation model. 

Patrick Flynn, senior director of sustainability for Salesforce, declined to disclose specific details about the agreement covering its offices on 50 Fremont and 350 Mission streets, including how long the contract took to come together and who was involved in the negotiations. A decision about whether the company will use the program for its new Salesforce Tower hasn't been finalized, and the team is still "evaluating our options," he said.  

Salesforce is using a variety of options to achieve its renewable energy targets, including virtual power purchase agreements for wind farms that cover its data center loads in West Virginia and Texas. The contracts were for 64 megawatts, which accounts for a "significant" portion of its future power consumption. The company also uses green tariff programs as appropriate, Flynn said.   

"Subscription-based green tariffs like CPSF's SuperGreen and PG&E's Solar Choice offer a low-risk, low-commitment way to directly incentivize the construction of new renewable energy resources," he wrote in response to several questions sent via email. "If you're interested, go talk to them. They're keen on making products that work for their customers."

Back in April, Salesforce said it had achieved "net-zero greenhouse gas emissions" status, by buying carbon credits equivalent to its operational footprint. The tech company has set an internal price on emissions, so that business decisions — including the sorts of equipment purchased to run its cloud services — take this factor into account.