The giant extension-cord plan

Our energy is still tied to unaccountable private interests
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EDITORIAL It's only because of a dark moment in San Francisco's history that city officials are trying to figure out what to do about an underwater electricity cable that's slated to run from Pittsburg onto port property and provide additional power for the tip of the Peninsula.

San Francisco was supposed to have its own power cable, carrying its own power over the bay from the hydroelectric dam at Hetch Hetchy. In fact, in the 1920s the city built 99 miles of cable, from the high Sierra to the South Bay ... and mysteriously ran out of copper wire a few yards from a new Pacific Gas and Electric Co. substation in Newark.

That was a key moment in the Raker Act scandal, the ongoing violation of federal law that has allowed PG&E to operate a monopoly private power agency in a city that's supposed to have public power.

But now PG&E controls all the power coming into town — and the California Independent System Operator, which is responsible for the state grid, says the supply coming into San Francisco is too limited and not sufficiently reliable.

As JB Powell reports in "Power Play" on page TK, Babcock and Brown, an international financial firm based in Australia, has put up $300 million for a Trans Bay Cable that would link the city to the East Bay. Ironically, a public power agency — in Pittsburg — would wind up making money off the project by selling power in San Francisco. Other than rent at the port, this city will get nothing out of the deal.

There are some basic conceptual problems with the project. Most of the power shipped along the 57-mile, 400-megawatt line would be produced by fossil fuel plants. That's contrary to the direction the city is trying to go: San Francisco is in the process of building solar projects and is looking into using tidal energy. The Hetch Hetchy project, of course, is hydropower. And critics say that the new line would flood San Francisco with an oversupply of electricity, discouraging the environmentally sound approach of conservation.

But there's a larger problem here: a private venture firm will own the cable — and could sell it to another entity, perhaps PG&E. So the city's energy future under this scenario will still be tied to unaccountable private interests.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, whose Local Agency Formation Commission held a hearing on the cable plan in January, asked San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) staffers why the city doesn't have its own line. The agency, staffer Barbara Hale said, has been looking into that — but any project would be years away.

Still, this line, if the city goes along with the deal, will be with us for decades — and the Board of Supervisors shouldn't just approve it without looking at its role in a long-term municipal energy program. San Francisco is moving inexorably toward public power — too slowly, but inexorably. How, exactly, does this cable fit into a municipal power system? Does San Francisco even need it? Is a publicly owned transbay power line something that ought to be on the agenda? Why would the city want to go along with this private venture if there is (or ought to be) a city project in the wings?

Nobody has answered those questions, because the city still lacks a detailed public power plan. Before the supervisors approve this cable, the SFPUC needs to look at all the energy options, prepare a long-term plan, and evaluate whether this giant extension cord fits into it. *