How To Stop A Power Plant
Date: Oct 30, 2010
Campaign for: Environmental Justice


Since 2003, the City of San Francisco’s plan to shut down its last remaining fossil fuel-burning power plant had been to build four new natural gas power plants to replace it. The Potrero Power Plant was the state's dirtiest electricity generating facilities, using and re-using over 200 million gallons of Bay water for cooling and emitting particulate matter and pollutants that have been blamed for increased levels of asthma and cancer in the City's Potrero Hill and Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhoods.

In 2004, longtime advocates of power plant closure such as the Power Plant Task Force and Potrero Boosters begrudingly accepted the City's idea that new combustion turbine gas power plants would be cleaner than the aging Potrero Power Plant. However, that argument began to look increasingly unviable over time, leading Brightline to become engaged in July 2007.

"Baby, We Gotta Stop The Peakers"

In July 24 2007, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission approved a $270 million contract to build the four natural gas peaking power plants, or "peakers", that the City hoped would replace the Potrero Plant. Bayview-Hunters Point's Espanola Jackson was the lone voice of public dissent at that hearing, and SFPUC Commissioner Adam Werbach cast the sole "no" vote as the project was approved.

After the hearing, Ms. Jackson called her new friend and ally, Brightline Executive Director Joshua Arce, to say "Baby, we gotta stop the peakers." A loose coalition began to form among the few remaining community and environmental advocates that still believed a power plant-free alternative to Potrero was possible. The Bayview-based A. Philip Randolph Institute, Greenaction, and Environmental Justice Advocacy had worked on closing the Hunters Point Power Plant, while Sierra Club, the Green Party, Our City, SF Community Power, and Californians for Renewable Energy continued to hold the line on renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. Brightline helped provide the link between the different groups, making the case that the solution to the Potrero Power Plant conundrum was found somewhere between traditional environmentalism and the community justice call of Ms. Jackson.

On July 31, 2007 Brightline sent a letter to Mayor Newsom and Public Utilities Commissioners asking them to reconsider their support for the new power plants, highlighting factors that had not been considered during the previous week's vote. Sixty seconds after the letter went out by email, Brightline got a one word response from Commissioner Werbach: "YES!"

New Allies

Commissioner Werbach introduced Arce to Van Jones, who was still President of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights at that time. Jones helped Arce write an Op-Ed for the San Francisco Chronicle entitled "On San Francisco's Energy Future" that made the case that "green wave has lifted our expectations of new power generation."

By October, Werbach had been replaced on the Commission by solar advocate David Hochschild, who declared that the decision of whether or not to build new power plants "the biggest energy decision facing San Francisco since construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam." Despite the due diligence of Hochschild and his colleague Commissioner Richard Sklar, who actually ran the SFPUC under Mayor Dianne Feinstein, the peakers was approved on Halloween 2007.

"We're Just Gettin' Started"

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, a neighbor of the Potrero Plant, and Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who represented the District, both made the power plant's closure a priority for the better part of a decade but had been told time and time again by City staff that it was impossible to shut Potrero without some form of local fossil fuel generation.

Yet the burgeoning and unique coalition of advocates in support of a "no power plant" alternative found an important and timely ally in San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), who wrote a January 2008 letter that highlighted irrefutable data making the case for shuttering Potrero without any new power plants. SPUR brought a highly credible technical edge to the environmental and community advocacy that held the thread to which the hope of a power plant-free San Francisco was attached.

A perhaps even more one-of-a-kind coalition came together at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier, Ross Mirkarimi, and Chris Daly had never formed a policymaking bloc on an issue, but stood together in opposition to new power plants. In April, Sup. Alioto-Pier introduced opposition legislation backed by a hearing to push back on the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), the quasi-regulatory agency that maintains the stability of the state electrical grid and has the final say on the closure of power plants.

The Cal-ISO, our environmental/community coalition argued, had ignored changes in local electricity demand, advances in renewable energy and efficiency and, most importantly, the installation of a 400-megawatt cable between the East Bay and San Francisco since opining in 2004 that it would authorize Potrero's shut-down only if new power plants were built. By the spring, Supervisor Tom Ammiano had joined the power plant opposition and Environmental Defense Fund provided a national perspective on this local issue in asking the City to re-consider its options.

Mayor Newsom's Choice

On April 28, 2008, Brightline delivered a letter to Mayor Gavin Newsom signed by nearly 20 environmental, social justice, community, and civic organizations asking Mayor Newsom to "table the outdated power plant proposal in favor of the creation of a truly revolutionary plan for a renewable energy future for San Francisco." The coalition's core members were joined by Green for All, the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, Rainforest Action Network Women's Energy Matters, and the SF Bayview Newspaper in turning up the heat on the issue.

Over 100 environmentalists and community members rallied at City Hall on May 5, 2008 before going inside for a final, grueling 10-hour power plant hearing. Sup. Mirkarimi joined the rally after stepping off a plane back from a South American green conference before going inside to join Sup. Alioto-Pier in systematically dismantling every last argument in support of power plants that the City and Cal-ISO had the waning energy to muster.

The rally and a subsequent letter from national environmental figure Robert Kennedy Jr. was enough for Mayor Newsom to bring Brightline's Joshua Arce, Sierra Club's John Rizzo, SF Community Power's Steve Moss, and SPUR's Egon Terplan in for a meeting on May 22 in which the Mayor began by stating "I'm not going to build any new power plants."

Within days Mayor Newsom would announce a plan to begin the phased closure of the Potrero Power Plant without the construction of new power plants.

On July 22, Commissioner Sklar made a motion to rescind the $273 million peaker power plant contract that was approved nearly one year to the day prior, with Commissioners Hochschild and Dennis Normandy providing the votes that put the motion over the top.

Pressure on Cal-ISO

In 2009, a united City family began to set its sights on Cal-ISO regulators in otder to close Potrero in its entirety contingent upon operation of the Trans Bay Cable and transmission upgrades by PG&E. Advocates such as Greenaction's Marie Harrison, the Green Party's Eric Brooks, and Brightline's Arce made regulary trips to Cal-ISO's remote headquarters in Folsom, California, often carrying letters from Espanola Jackson with them. By May of 2009 Cal-ISO had scaled back its demand for local in-city generation from 200 megawatts in 2004 to just 25 megawatts beginning in 2010. An August 13 settlement agreement secured by City Attorney Dennis Herrera guaranteed Potrero's closure as soon as Cal-ISO agreed to release the "must-run" designation of Potrero.

In September, Senator Mark Leno delivered a letter of support for closing Potrero alongside community advocates, followed by Senator Leland Yee in late October.

By the spring, the Trans Bay Cable was capable of operation and on January 12, 2010 Cal-ISO officially agreed to shut down Potrero by year's end. Malfuncitons on the Trans Bay Cable prompted delays and further visits to Cal-ISO throughout the year, but at Cal-ISO's September 9 meeting, Greenaction's Harrison, Brightline's Arce, and Hunters View resident Leaotis Martin were on hand to learn that Trans Bay Cable was at long last operational.

What's Next?

The Potrero Power Plant was officially shut down on December 21, 2010 at a ceremony attended by community activists, environmental justice advocates, Mayor Newsom, City Attorney Herrera, Supervisors Maxwell and Alioto-Pier, CPUC Commissioners Timothy Simon and Nancy Ryan, and Cal-ISO's Yakout Mansour.

In the months leading up to Potrero's closure, many questions were raised about whether other dirty power plants in the East Bay would be required to maintain the reliability of electricity in San Francisco. Proving that clean energy is not a zero-sum game, advocates demonstrated that dirty power plants in Contra Costa County could be taken off-line while maintaining the integrity of the region's energy grid. Nonetheless, proposed gas power plants in Antioch, Tracy, and Hayward have energized San Francisco clean energy advocates to engage in the pursuit of "no dirty power plants" in their neighboring Bay Area counties.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission formally de-commissioned the Potrero Power Plant at midnight on February 28, 2011 and the facility is scheduled to be demolished in the coming years.

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