SF Chronicle - 'Newsom, Supes Tangle Over S.F. Power Plant'
Despite San Francisco's national reputation for environmental initiatives, a 40-year-old fossil-fuel power plant on the city's eastern shore continues to spew particulates and chemicals into the air while dumping scalding water into the bay.
And the most immediate opportunity for cleaning up the Potrero power plant south of Mission Bay is likely to become even more remote today. The Board of Supervisors is expected to reject a resolution by Mayor Gavin Newsom, who wants the authority to negotiate an agreement to retrofit the plant with its owner, Mirant Corp.
Newsom's plan is not popular with some supervisors and residents because it represents a rejection of a decades-long effort - one that Newsom and regulators once supported - to replace the Mirant plant with a city-owned, cleaner one that would still run on fossil fuels.
Critics of Newsom's proposal say there is no proof that a retrofit will reduce emissions to levels expected of modern power plants, such as for the proposed city generators.
For now, the city needs to have a power plant of some kind located in town because the state power grid monitor, the California Independent System Operator Corp., requires the city to produce enough energy to handle emergencies or shutdowns elsewhere.
While the city has a plan to pursue renewable energy sources in the future, power grid officials say they believe that meeting their requirements with alternative energy, such as solar and wind power, is years, if not decades, away.
Less than a year ago, Newsom, the city's Public Utilities Commission and other city leaders signed on to a plan to close the Mirant plant in anticipation of opening the new city-owned plant just blocks away. At a news conference alongside Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, Newsom said the symbolic agreement with Mirant represented "an important day in the history of the city."
But by this summer, Newsom and the SFPUC had changed their minds. They wanted to retrofit three Mirant units - changing them to run on natural gas instead of diesel - and shut one down.
Newsom's reversal came in the context of the city securing more power generation. In 2007, a project was approved to sink a power cable in the bay floor that will run from Pittsburg and deliver 400 megawatts to San Francisco by 2010.
While the cable will not deliver enough juice to satisfy all of the state's requirements, grid officials have said the cable could allow the city to shut down the largest of the four Mirant power units - making the retrofit plan a viable alternative to building a new power plant.
That retrofit option received backing from a variety of supporters, including Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and some environmental advocates, who object to building a new fossil-fuel plant in San Francisco when renewable energy sources are gaining ground.
Newsom, who has promoted San Francisco as one of the country's greenest cities, cast his change of heart as environmental prudence. Others say he was pushed by Mirant, which wants to keep the plant open, and PG&E, which has fought city efforts to provide its own electricity.
Last week, Newsom said he agreed that retrofitting the Mirant plant is not an ideal option, but that it's the best for now.
"I can't believe people would want to build new power plants at this time," Newsom said. "First, you retrofit, and then you find alternative energy sources, and then you shut it down eventually ... I'll veto any legislation to build new power plants."
Newsom's retrofit resolution was unfavorably reviewed last month at a hearing before a supervisors' committee.
During the hearing, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell and Peskin, who have both worked on the proposal to build a city-owned power plant for nearly a decade, expressed exasperation.
"We had something that had gone through the process, and now (the mayor) wants to short-circuit that process and bring in something different," Maxwell said.
Both supervisors said that neither the mayor's staff nor the SFPUC have provided proof - other than claims from Mirant - that the retrofit will lead to acceptable emission reductions. And they are angry at what they see as a poorly researched and hasty proposal.
"We started asking questions about the feasibility of that plan, and the answers were, frankly, not good enough for government," Peskin said. "They did not pass the laugh test."
Meanwhile, the Mirant plant chugs away, emitting smog-producing nitrous oxide, sulfur, carbon dioxide and particulates, and sucking in 226 million gallons of bay water every day. Studies show that the heated water is sent back into shallow waters, where it stirs up polluted elements, including copper, dioxins, mercury and PCBs, dispersing them throughout the bay.
Residents of Dogpatch, where the plant is located, are worried about their health and say they have had it with the politics.
"It's easy for the city and for environmental groups to say 'We want green,' but they haven't been living with this for so many years," said Janet Carpinelli, vice president of the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association. "We want green, too, but I've been here for 25 years breathing this stuff ... this neighborhood is getting lost in the politics of the city and the green versus not green arguments."
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