Peaker plants and SF's energy future - Page 2

Questions city officials ought to be asking

The power plants that would feed the cable are largely nonrenewables, and although they're outside town, this is hardly an environmental advance.

The big question, though, is why San Francisco has to go through this exercise.

Cal-ISO predicts that the city will run short of power in a few years — but that forecast is awfully suspect. For starters, the entire projected shortfall is five megawatts in 2010, growing by 10 MW per year after that. And the city's projections for Community Choice Aggregation suggest that conservation measures can cheaply reduce demand, by 107 MW, over the same period. Conservation, also known as demand-side management, is by far the least expensive and most environmentally sound alternative.

In fact, with an aggressive conservation plan and an aggressive solar program, it's possible that the city could handle the local load just fine without the Mirant plant or the peakers.

That, of course, would leave much of the power in the hands of PG&E — and make the city too heavily reliant on the one Peninsula cable. That's what makes the giant extension cord from Pittsburg seem so appealing. But the city has also been talking about extending its power line from Hetch Hetchy, which now ends in Newark, across the bay — and that city-owned, city-run alternative would make far more sense. (The company that would own the Trans Bay Cable, Babcock and Brown, has offered San Francisco a handful of cash, a total of $75 million over 25 years, to make the deal sound sweeter. But that's birdseed compared with the revenue the city would get by building its own line and moving to create a full public power system.)

Infrastructure decisions like these tie the city down for many years to come, and the supervisors need to be careful. They should, at a minimum:

Conduct an independent study, outside the purview of Cal-ISO, to see what the city's energy needs really will be in the future and how they can be met with renewables and conservation.

Direct the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to prepare a plan to build the peaker facilities as a city project, with no private-sector partner getting control of the power for 10 years.

Guarantee the people of Bayview and the other southeast neighborhoods that if the peakers are installed, they won't be fired up until the Mirant plant is shut down.

But there's a larger point here. San Francisco has never had a detailed energy-options study that looks at how the city overall should address its energy needs for the next 25 years. A study like that would consider everything from tidal and wind power to public power, infrastructure needs, and extending the Hetch Hetchy line across the bay to CCA.

Instead, at the bidding of an unaccountable state agency filled with people who think like private-utility executives, the city is making a bunch of piecemeal moves that will create a patchwork of programs that may not be the right ones, may not be properly connected, and may not even be needed.

The only outfit that's demanding we move quickly here is Cal-ISO — and before city officials decide to let the governor's people determine our energy future, City Attorney Dennis Herrera should prepare a memo on what legal authority, if any, Cal-ISO has over the city and how San Francisco can defy that agency and determine its own future.*