Power play - Page 2

A multinational development company is putting up big bucks for the Trans Bay Cable, but sustainable power advocates call it "a waste of resources"

"Why can't we have our own cable?" Mirkarimi asked SFPUC staffer Barbara Hale. She said the agency has been "studying the feasibility" of the proposed city-owned line but cannot yet commit to a firm "coming online date" like the TBC's developer can.

For years the city has been seeking a way to secure full ownership of the Hetch Hetchy lines as a step toward forming a public power utility, independent of PG&E control. Ironically, if the TBC is built, a public power agency would own the cable and profit from it, just not San Francisco's power agency. Pittsburg's municipal utility is slated to take over the line once Babcock and Brown finishes its construction.

At the same hearing in January, Moss pointed to such projects as the proposed Hetch Hetchy line, as well as the city's evolving plans to implement more renewable power sources, as proof that supervisors should reject the TBC. Calling the cable a "potlatch," Moss said, "Time is our friend" in power matters. "Technology will change and improve, [and] we're potentially rushing into a very expensive project." Mirkarimi did not return calls for comment, but at the hearing, he indicated he is still studying the cable and has not yet formed a position on it.

Philip DeAndrade, chair of the city's Power Plant Task Force, expressed concerns that Pittsburg's power plants burn "very available fossil fuels" for their generation and that these cheaper sources of electricity "might take out of the market mix" more renewable energy. DeAndrade also brought up the four gas-fired combustion turbines, known as peakers, that the city is in the process of bringing online. With these generators scheduled to go into service in 2009, as well as several PG&E transmission projects either in the works or already operational, DeAndrade said, "I'm not convinced [the TBC] is a good deal for San Francisco. What it looks like is a good deal for Babcock and Brown and the City of Pittsburg."

CAL-ISO insists that the TBC is the best reliability option for the region. Spokesperson Gregg Fishman said the peakers and other local energy projects will allow the system operator to stop relying on the inefficient Potrero Hill Power Plant. "But all that really does is keep us even in San Francisco. It doesn't improve the reliability of the system at all — and in fact, with load [demand] growth we are actually falling slowly behind." Fishman later mentioned the added benefits of having power come in from a different direction. Currently, all power lines feeding the city travel up the Peninsula.

On March 13 the TBC cleared its first local regulatory hurdle when the Port Commission approved a licensing agreement for the cable's facilities. Port officials, along with staff from the Mayor's Office and other city agencies, spent weeks negotiating the terms of the deal with Babcock and Brown. The agreement grants the port annual rent payments in excess of $1 million, a needed cash infusion for the strapped agency.

The community benefits package gives the port an additional $5.5 million, with an as yet undetermined portion of those funds to be spent on open-space and energy-related projects on port-owned land. In addition to payments to the port, Babcock and Brown pledged more than $23 million to the SFPUC for sustainable energy programs, such as solar, wind, and tidal power initiatives.

Despite passing the licensing and benefits packages, port commissioners and their staff said they were not ruling on the project's merits in terms of energy policy. Port special projects manager Brad Benson, who spearheaded the negotiations, told us, "Port staff does not believe we have the required expertise to rule on energy policy aspects [of the TBC].

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