Out with the old

Pub date December 29, 2010
WriterRebecca Bowe

On the chilly morning of Dec. 21, a crowd of prominent local and state figures huddled in an industrial parking lot overlooking the brick smokestack of the Potrero power plant, which has been in operation for more than 40 years. It was the winter solstice, the morning after a lunar eclipse, and an historic environmental moment for San Francisco.

A longstanding battle to shut down the aging, polluting power plant was finally coming to an end, and it would be effectively shuttered as the calendar flipped to the new year. Although the past decade had been marked by political infighting and a relentless push to persuade the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) to shut it down sooner, the tone that day was buoyant as people made the rounds, embracing one another and offering congratulations and thanks.

Among those who lined up before the media were Mayor Gavin Newsom, who will be sworn in as lieutenant governor in early 2011; Sup. Sophie Maxwell, whose 10 years on the Board of Supervisors is coming to a close; City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who’s thrown his hat into the mayoral race; and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission General Manager Ed Harrington, whose name has been floated as a contender for interim mayor.

Each of these local politicians played a role in the contentious battle to close the plant, and each candidly admitted that shouting matches on the subject had erupted over the years. Yet they all expressed thanks to one another and to community members in the Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhoods, where residents were most directly affected by the noxious air pollution generated by the plant.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a state and a city to close this power plant,” said Maxwell, whose District 10 includes the neighborhoods affected by the power plant. “I started working on these plants when I took office, and now the plants are leaving with me.” Maxwell was credited with displaying dogged persistence and playing an instrumental role in pushing for the shutdown the plant.

“There were a lot of phone calls, there were a lot of arguments, there were a lot of disputes. But the fact of the matter is that everybody was focused on the same goal — and that was getting this plant shut down,” said Herrera, who has also been a key player in the decade-long fight to shut down the plant.

Newsom sounded a similar note. “I want to compliment everybody for their steadfastness and their devotion to this process,” the mayor said. “We didn’t always necessarily agree.”

Joshua Arce, who worked with community members to shut down the plant as part of his work with the Brightline Defense Project, was clearly pleased by the announcement. “It’s a fantastic day. We’re at last going to see the billowing smokestack come down, and for good,” Arce said.

The shutdown finally came to pass because the CalISO, which regulates the state power grid, was willing to accept new energy system upgrades as sufficiently reliable. For years, despite the community’s insistence that the plant was having an unacceptable impact on public health and disproportionately affected low-income communities of color, CalISO refused to terminate a contract requiring the plant to stay in operation for grid-reliability purposes.

However, new pieces to the city’s energy puzzle were recently fitted into place. The Trans Bay Cable, a 53-mile submarine power line that can transmit 400 megawatts of electricity from a Pittsburg generating station to San Francisco, became fully operational Nov. 23, months behind schedule. Meanwhile, a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. re-cabling project deemed important to San Francisco’s electricity reliability was completed Dec. 5.

“This plant has been part of the reliable supply for San Francisco … for a long time. And more recently, it actually provided the security for San Francisco should anything happen outside of San Francisco,” Yakout Mansour, president and CEO of the CalISO said during the shutdown ceremony. “But the time is here to replace the plant with an alternative to make the city more secure and reliable with much less polluting options.”

The CalISO issued a letter to the plant owner, which recently merged with another company and changed its name from Mirant to GenOn, stating that the must-run agreement would be terminated effective Jan. 1. The date of the final termination is Feb. 28, pending approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Now the major question is what will become of the power plant site, a vast strip of industrial real estate wedged between Illinois Street and the waterfront. “Many ideas have been thrown out there. People have come to us and said everything from office and industrial and research and development, to wind turbines,” noted Sam Lauter, a local spokesperson for GenOn. Lauter noted that community meetings would be held soon to discuss the future site use.

The site was previously owned by PG&E, and the utility is responsible for cleaning up lingering toxic residue including lampblack, a byproduct of coal processing, left behind when PG&E sold the site. Because of the pollution, residential units cannot legally be constructed on the site, even after cleanup.

There is one unfortunate consequence to shuttering the plant. According to plant manager Mike Montany, five or six of the 28 employees of the plant will lose their jobs. The rest will either retire or go to work at a new facility, he said.

While San Francisco will be poised to ring in the new year with improved air quality thanks to the elimination of its last polluting energy facility, residents of the area where the city’s power will now be sourced from won’t be so lucky. They are faced with the construction of two new power plants. The undersea Trans Bay Cable will run from the PG&E’s substation in San Francisco — a humming network of cables and transformers located beside the power plant that will stay put after the shutdown — to a generating station in Pittsburg, located in the delta near the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

GenOn owns the Pittsburg power plant, and it recently held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new power plant in neighboring Antioch, called Marsh Landing. At the same time, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) recently gave the green light for another new power plant in that area. The $1.5 billion PG&E facility would be located in Oakley, which borders Antioch. It won commission approval Dec. 16, despite an earlier decision rejecting the proposal.

The plans for new power plants were approved just after the conclusion of an important United Nations convention on Climate Change in Cancún, Mexico, and amid news reports highlighting scientists’ conclusion that polar bears have a shot at survival only if serious efforts are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the cheerful ceremony to shut down the Potrero power plant was a satisfying conclusion to a long battle, there’s a long road yet ahead in the overarching struggle against climate change.