Tidal (public) power

Pub date September 26, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom, perhaps looking for a big issue to bring to a star-studded environmental meeting in New York City last week, suddenly discovered the value of tidal energy. There’s actually nothing new about the idea: although Newsom didn’t give anyone but himself credit, the plan was first floated by Matt Gonzalez in the 2003 mayor’s race. It was picked up by Supervisors Jake McGoldrick and Ross Mirkarimi and has been on the agenda at Mirkarimi’s Local Area Formation Committee (LAFCo) for more than a year.
But whatever — if the mayor’s on board, fine. There’s a tremendous amount of potential in the concept — huge amounts of renewable energy with little significant environmental impact (and no greenhouse gases). The technology appears to be available, and there’s every reason for the city to move forward rapidly — as long as the power generator is owned, operated, and totally controlled by the city. And that’s not at all guaranteed.
A pilot project would cost about $10 million — peanuts compared to the revenue potential but a chunk of change nonetheless. Newsom, who is looking for state money, is also considering the possibility of seeking private-sector partnerships. And one company that has its greedy eye on the potential energy in the ocean tides is Pacific Gas and Electric.
PG&E is trying desperately to buff up its tarnished image, spending millions on slick ads promoting itself as a green company. It’s crap: among other things, PG&E still operates a nightmare of a nuclear plant on an earthquake fault in San Luis Obispo and is trying to get the plant’s operating license extended. But environmentalism sells in California, and the state’s largest and most rapacious private utility has no shame.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported Sept. 19 that city officials were negotiating with “a number of companies that could help run the turbines and cover the costs” and added that “Pacific Gas and Electric Company is among them, said Jared Blumenfeld, director of the city’s Department of the Environment.” Blumenfeld told us he was misquoted and that officials are only discussing with PG&E the prospects for connecting to the PG&E-owned grid in the city.
But Blumenfeld explained that a private company called Golden Gate Energy already has a federal license to develop tidal energy in the San Francisco Bay — and PG&E has a stake in that venture. The Golden Gate Energy license expires in 2008, and it’s unlikely the company will be able to start work by then, Blumenfeld said. Given that nobody actually has a working model of a tidal generator of this scale, that’s probably true.
Still, it shows that PG&E isn’t going to give up easily on the idea of owning or running what could be a source of energy that could power a sizable percentage of San Francisco. The reason is obvious: if the city operates the tidal power plant, it will be a huge boost for public power. Between tides, $100 million worth of solar energy that’s in the pipeline, and the Hetch Hetchy dam, San Francisco would come pretty close to generating enough renewable energy to power the whole town — and PG&E could be tossed entirely out of the picture.
Of course, that assumes that the city is serious about creating a full-scale public power system, which involves taking over PG&E’s transmission grid. Newsom says he supports public power. So does Susan Leal, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. But while both are ready to cough up $150,000 for a study into the benefits of tidal power (and a possible $10 million for a pilot project), neither has ever been willing to spend a penny for a study into the costs and benefits of taking over the grid.
Mirkarimi told us that LAFCo will begin hearings on tidal power next month and get to the bottom of what the mayor has in mind. The supervisors should allow no shadow of doubt about the policy for pursing this energy source: it can only be done as part of a larger plan to bring public power to the city — and if PG&E or any other private energy company has even the tip of a finger anywhere near it, the deal is dead in the water. SFBG