Peaker plan afloat

Strange political alliance opposes city plan for new fossil fuel power plants and looks for creative alternatives

A proposal to build two natural gas–fired power plants is still floating through the city's planning process, set for approval by the Board of Supervisors as soon as May, but no one seems truly comfortable with the deal.

"It's not my first choice or my second choice, but it's the choice I have," Board president Aaron Peskin told the Guardian. The choice seems to be either the city builds newer, potentially cleaner power plants — known as "peakers" because they would be used mainly during times of peak energy demand — or does nothing to shut down the super-polluting Mirant Potrero power plant.

The combination gas- and diesel-burning power plant spews a cocktail of toxins from its stack every year and draws 226 million gallons of water a day from the bay to cool its generators yet it's mandated by the state to keep operating. The discharge flows back into the bay significantly altered, with microorganisms and fish larvae replaced by mercury, dioxins, and PCBs.

The California Independent System Operator (CAL-ISO), the state agency that oversees electricity reliability, said it would break the Mirant contract if the peakers came online. The city-owned plants would use recycled water and more up-to-date air quality controls, making for cleaner facilities at the two proposed sites — the airport and the intersection of 25th and Maryland in the Bayview.

They also would be city-operated, giving a little more leg to the local public power movement. But they still burn fossil fuel, and at a time when the climate is in crisis and natural gas prices are only rising, many say this isn't the direction a trend-setting city like San Francisco should be heading.

"This isn't the progressive way to go," said Sup. Chris Daly. "We need to be more forcefully installing renewables that are municipally owned."

Daly, along with supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Michela Alioto-Pier and the city's current power provider Pacific Gas and Electric Co., have lined up against building the peakers in what Mirkarimi calls an "unholy alliance."

PG&E, lobbying under the guise of the "Close It! Coalition," states that the peakers "further San Francisco's reliance on fossil fuels and add to global warming." The $12 billion utility company currently gets 40 percent of its power the same way and is in the process of constructing several similar plants throughout the state. Nevertheless, the company has submitted detailed proposals to the city and state outlining demand response measures and transmission upgrades that would mitigate the need for more energy.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and City Attorney Dennis Herrera support building the peakers in order to close the Mirant plant, and Sups. Sophie Maxwell, Bevan Dufty, and Jake McGoldrick are carrying the legislation that would seal the contract with Cleveland, Ohio-based Industrial Construction Company to start the $252 million project.

That legislation points out that Mirant's water permit is set to expire Dec. 31, and the Regional Water Quality Board has indicated it has no plans to renew it unless Mirant upgrades to best practices. This has been suggested as an alternative way to close the plant. When asked whether Cal-ISO's reliability demands trump the Water Board's requirements, Cal-ISO's Gregg Fishman wrote in an e-mail, "What happens if the Potrero unit's water permits expire? Simply put — we're not sure."

Beyond that, a number of questions remain: Should the requirement for a full feasibility study for city contracts more than $25 million really have been waived for this project? Is it fair to put the new power plant in the neighborhood that has always endured the lion's share of the city's pollution? What if they were on movable barges instead?