Peaker plants and SF’s energy future

Pub date August 8, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Over the next few weeks, the Board of Supervisors will be looking at two major electric-power programs that could add a lot of new generation capacity (and possibly new pollution) to southeast San Francisco and a new source of backup power from out of town. Both projects seem to have broad support at City Hall.

The main questions that city officials ought to be asking about plans for a new power plant in Potrero Hill and a new power cable to bring electricity across the bay are:

Do we really need either?

What is motivating the powerful but little-known state agency to demand that San Francisco — the only US city with a federal public power mandate — prepare for a future in which energy use continues to grow, conservation lags, the private sector controls the city’s power supply, and the city’s plans for cutting power use are a failure?

The California Independent System Operator, known as Cal-ISO, was created in the wake of the wretched energy deregulation plan that the State Legislature concocted in 1996. The outfit, run by a five-member board appointed by the governor, is supposed to ensure that every part of California has enough electricity — now and in the future.

But the board members are almost all former utility executives, including a retired Pacific Gas and Electric Co. official, and like most utility executives, they seem to believe that the only track for electricity use is upward.

So Cal-ISO has informed San Francisco that it doesn’t have enough power on hand to make it through 2010. That means the city needs to either find a new way to import more power (the only significant current pathway is a cable that runs up the Peninsula and is owned by PG&E) or build more power plants inside its limits.

The problem with building more plants, particularly the kind of plants Cal-ISO likes — fossil fuel burners that can run day and night without interruption — is that San Francisco residents are trying to get rid of the last big polluting plant, Mirant Corp.’s facility at the foot of Potrero Hill, not build more.

So the latest solution involves the installation of three natural gas–<\d>fired generators known as peakers, which would run only when demand is high and other sources (including the solar facility the city plans to build) aren’t operating. The mayor and the supervisors are referring to these plants as "city-owned generation," making this sound like a big step on the way to public power.

And on one level, it is: San Francisco won the turbines (which are essentially big jet engines) as part of a settlement with Williams Energy after the energy crisis, and they could be part of a municipal utility. But the current plans call for the Chicago subsidiary of a Tokyo company, J Power, to build the structures that would house the turbines and hook them up to the power lines, then operate the plants for 10 years. Only then would they revert to city ownership.

So already San Francisco is waffling on the public power issue. (Why, for example, can’t the city build the facilities itself and hire its own engineers to hook up the turbines and run them? Why do we even need a private, outside partner?)

Then there’s the environmental impact. In theory, if the peakers only ran a few hours a day, they would spew less junk into the air than the Mirant plant currently does. And Cal-ISO is only willing to allow the Mirant plant to shut down if San Francisco develops some other form of firm local generation. But there’s nothing in writing anywhere to guarantee that the foul exhaust from Mirant would cease when the peakers fired up; in fact, it’s possible that the southeast part of the city could wind up living with both.

The other project, called the Trans Bay Cable, would be a privately owned venture carrying power from Pittsburg across the bay and into San Francisco. The power plants that would feed the cable are largely nonrenewables, and although they’re outside town, this is hardly an environmental advance.

The big question, though, is why San Francisco has to go through this exercise.

Cal-ISO predicts that the city will run short of power in a few years — but that forecast is awfully suspect. For starters, the entire projected shortfall is five megawatts in 2010, growing by 10 MW per year after that. And the city’s projections for Community Choice Aggregation suggest that conservation measures can cheaply reduce demand, by 107 MW, over the same period. Conservation, also known as demand-side management, is by far the least expensive and most environmentally sound alternative.

In fact, with an aggressive conservation plan and an aggressive solar program, it’s possible that the city could handle the local load just fine without the Mirant plant or the peakers.

That, of course, would leave much of the power in the hands of PG&E — and make the city too heavily reliant on the one Peninsula cable. That’s what makes the giant extension cord from Pittsburg seem so appealing. But the city has also been talking about extending its power line from Hetch Hetchy, which now ends in Newark, across the bay — and that city-owned, city-run alternative would make far more sense. (The company that would own the Trans Bay Cable, Babcock and Brown, has offered San Francisco a handful of cash, a total of $75 million over 25 years, to make the deal sound sweeter. But that’s birdseed compared with the revenue the city would get by building its own line and moving to create a full public power system.)

Infrastructure decisions like these tie the city down for many years to come, and the supervisors need to be careful. They should, at a minimum:

Conduct an independent study, outside the purview of Cal-ISO, to see what the city’s energy needs really will be in the future and how they can be met with renewables and conservation.

Direct the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to prepare a plan to build the peaker facilities as a city project, with no private-sector partner getting control of the power for 10 years.

Guarantee the people of Bayview and the other southeast neighborhoods that if the peakers are installed, they won’t be fired up until the Mirant plant is shut down.

But there’s a larger point here. San Francisco has never had a detailed energy-options study that looks at how the city overall should address its energy needs for the next 25 years. A study like that would consider everything from tidal and wind power to public power, infrastructure needs, and extending the Hetch Hetchy line across the bay to CCA.

Instead, at the bidding of an unaccountable state agency filled with people who think like private-utility executives, the city is making a bunch of piecemeal moves that will create a patchwork of programs that may not be the right ones, may not be properly connected, and may not even be needed.

The only outfit that’s demanding we move quickly here is Cal-ISO — and before city officials decide to let the governor’s people determine our energy future, City Attorney Dennis Herrera should prepare a memo on what legal authority, if any, Cal-ISO has over the city and how San Francisco can defy that agency and determine its own future.*