Powerless

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GREEN CITY Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who represents a disproportionately polluted district that is host to the city’s only fossil fuel-burning power plant, has introduced legislation to change the way energy flows into and around the city.

The ordinance collates some past resolutions already affirmed by the Board of Supervisors — to close the Mirant Potrero Power Plant as soon as possible and to request that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission conduct a transmission-only study to update the city’s Electricity Resource Plan (which is currently based on building a new peaker power plant in the city in order to shutter Mirant’s older, more polluting facility).

Maxwell’s legislation further calls on the city to provide 100 percent clean energy by 2040 — a mandate lifted directly from Proposition H, a clean energy and public power act that was voted down in November.

But the three elements of the ordinance, which was co-signed by outgoing Sup. Aaron Peskin, are somewhat lacking.

The clean energy goals outlined by Maxwell only apply to the SFPUC — not to anyone who gets a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bill — and SFPUC power is already almost 100 percent clean, consisting mostly of Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric, solar, biomass, and a small amount of cogeneration. (Large hydro and cogeneration do not meet the state’s definition of renewable, but they are considered among the greenest kinds of "brown" power.)

Prop. H would have required the city to conduct an energy study, and specifically stated that the option of city-owned and operated power be considered as part of the study. Subject to board and mayoral approval, the city could have public power if it was determined to be the most efficient and economic way to provide 100 percent clean energy to all citizens by 2040.

Neighborhood and environmental activists, including Julian Davis, who ran the Prop. H campaign, Tony Kelly of the Potrero Boosters, and John Rizzo of the Sierra Club, said they weren’t consulted or even clued in that the Maxwell legislation was being introduced. Rizzo called the clean energy goals "window dressing," and said, "It doesn’t accomplish what Prop. H does."

"I was surprised by the Maxwell ordinance," said Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, one of the authors of Prop. H, which Maxwell, Peskin, and six other supervisors endorsed. "We hadn’t learned of it until the day it was introduced. I believe it’s going in the right direction but I’d like to see it more committed to its insistence on public power — not just elements of Prop. H, but public power so that we are able to be clear about what forms of energy independence, clean energy, renewable that the city should administer."

Maxwell’s aide, Jon Lau, said they did reach out to Mirkarimi’s staff, as well as Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office, and the legislation was written broadly so that there was "something here for everybody if you’re interested."

"The ordinance she introduced is sort of agnostic toward public power," he said. "But it could and should be part of the analysis to the extent that we study residential needs in the city. It’s totally relevant to have a public power analysis." He called public power a "flash point," and said, "The whole conversation would be about that."

Rizzo said the legislation doesn’t demand anything of PG&E, in terms of clean energy goals, but Lau said they don’t have the authority to legislate a private company’s energy procurement. "We can’t just dictate goals for PG&E."

The board doesn’t have the authority to close Mirant either — the gas and diesel power plant operates with a Reliability-Must-Run contract and the state’s grid operator, California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), has said Mirant must run or be replaced by some other in-city, instantly available power generation.

The plant also operates with a water permit from the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and though City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Maxwell, and Peskin recently sent a letter urging no renewal of the permit, which expires Dec. 31, the water board seems to be waiting for the plant to close by some other means rather than taking up the issue. "I’m currently reworking the permit reissuance schedule without Potrero because Potrero’s status is really more like ‘to be determined’ at this point," wrote water board staff member Bill Johnson in an e-mail to the Guardian. Because the board hasn’t acted on it, the permit will automatically be extended on Jan. 1, 2009, meaning the plant will be operating indefinitely until the water board makes a final decision or some other way to close it is found.

There’s almost unanimous approval throughout the city that beefing up transmission lines would be better than building a power plant or allowing Mirant to keep operating. Transmission is also one way the city could gain more control of energy resources and potentially save, and even make, some money.

On Dec. 15, Barbara Hale, assistant general manager for power, sent a request to Cal-ISO asking that two new SFPUC transmission proposals be considered as part of the state’s regional planning. They include upping the voltage of existing lines between the Hetch Hetchy dam and Newark, and adding a new line between Newark and Treasure Island, which would allow Hetch Hetchy power to travel exclusively on city-owned lines. The city currently pays PG&E $4 million per year to carry Hetch Hetchy power from Newark into the city — a fee San Francisco has been paying since 1925 when the city, during construction of the transmission lines between Yosemite and the Bay, mysteriously ran out of copper wire just a few miles shy of PG&E’s Newark station.

The new line would run under the bay, using an existing SFPUC water pipeline right-of-way. "This pathway will allow transmission lines to traverse the environmentally sensitive Don Edwards Regional Wildlife Preserve [in Newark] that is likely to be a bottleneck between PG&E’s pivotal Newark substation and the substation serving the Peninsula," the letter states. The SFPUC also predicts some possible cost recovery from Cal-ISO for building the Newark line because it would improve regional reliability. The agency also says it’s exploring partnerships with other municipal utilities for joint ownership.