Mirant plant to close

Pub date August 19, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office struck a deal with Mirant Potrero LLC on Aug. 13 to shutter its polluting Potrero power plant no later than Dec. 31, 2010. The settlement agreement represents a major victory for San Francisco and the broad array of elected officials and environmental-justice advocates who’ve been railing against the hazardous byproducts of the 40-year-old fossil fuel-fired facility for years.

The agreement also requires Mirant to pay the city $1 million, which will be put toward addressing childhood asthma and supporting neighborhood beautification.

"It’s a great result for the city, but in particular for the southeast sector," said Herrera, who has opposed the plant since 1999. "A lot of folks deserve a lot of credit for this."

Residents living in southeast San Francisco and Bayview-Hunter’s Point, where asthma rates are higher than average, have borne the brunt of toxic emissions spewing from the plant’s brick smokestack nearly 24 hours a day.

"It’s been a long haul," Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who represents the neighborhoods adversely affected by the pollution, said at a press conference. "Our community [has] some of the highest rates of asthma, the highest rates of cancer. We have babies being born in this community every day — and so we cannot keep our eye off the prize."

Maxwell’s vow to continue pushing even with the signed agreement in hand may prove wise considering that the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) — a body that oversees the state’s power grid and determines capacity requirements — has yet to grant its blessing to the deal. Under the terms of the agreement, Mirant must declare to Cal-ISO that it will not continue operation beyond the shutdown date. The utility also agreed not to pursue renewal of its "reliability must-run" (RMR) contract with Cal-ISO, which has required the plant to run against the wishes of elected officials in San Francisco for years.

Cal-ISO left open the question of whether it would agree to release Mirant from the RMR requirement. "The ISO will continue to require local measures to be available at the level necessary to ensure that San Francisco reliability is consistent with that of other major metropolitan areas in California and the nation," spokesman Gregg Fishman noted in a statement.

The battle to shutter San Francisco’s dirty power plant might not be over — but for the first time Mirant will now be aligned with the city and at odds with Cal-ISO. "I’ve got to give credit where credit’s due," Herrera told the Guardian. "[Mirant] ultimately did step up here with the settlement and make an unprecedented commitment."

What’s in it for Mirant? The city attorney dropped a lawsuit against Mirant that sought compliance with codes requiring seismic upgrades to old brick buildings on the site. The city also will give priority to any redevelopment plans for the company-owned site.

Chip Little, a Mirant spokesperson, said the company doesn’t have a particular vision in mind. "At this time, we have no redevelopment plans for the site," he said. Mirant does have other projects in the works outside San Francisco, however. "We responded to a [request for offer] that PG&E issued last year for new capacity," Little told us. Mirant has applied for licenses to build a 930 MW natural gas-fired plant near Antioch, and a 550 MW natural gas-fired facility at the Pittsburg power plant site.

The TransBay Cable, an undersea power line that will transfer electricity from Pittsburg power sources to San Francisco, is expected to go live in March. The cable will negate the need for most of the electricity supplied by the 350 MW Potrero plant, but there will still be a 25 MW generation gap.

"That’s really a rather small amount," Ed Harrington, director of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, told reporters during the press conference. "We believe it could be met by underwriting other projects that PG&E is working on and by … cutting back when there’s a peak."

When a battle was waged last year over proposed construction of city-owned power plants to replace Mirant, many thought a solution that didn’t involve new in-city generation was impossible. One year later, this new accord with the City Attorney’s Office rests on the idea that shutting down Mirant with no new fossil fuel is not just possible, but within reach in the near future.

Cecile Lepage contributed to this report.