Ongoing threat

PG&E asserts dominance while Mayor Newsom waffles on city-owned power

The debate over city plans to build and own two combustion turbine power plants, a project Mayor Gavin Newsom has made a last minute effort to alter, shows that public power — and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s fear of it — is still a significant issue at City Hall.

Newsom, a past advocate of the project, pulled the plug on its progress May 13. The proposal for the natural gas–fired power plants to handle peak energy demand (called "peakers") was up for approval at the Board of Supervisors until Newsom requested a one-week continuance.

Christine DeBerry, the mayor's liaison to the board, told supervisors the mayor would use the time to aggressively pursue better options than the peakers, even though it's an item that spent eight years on the planning block and was approved by the Newsom-appointed San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

"What can be aggressively pursued in the next week that hasn't been aggressively pursued in the last few years?" asked Sup. Chris Daly, one of the four supervisors publicly opposed to the plan, questioning DeBerry on why the mayor and his SFPUC hadn't put forth the best energy project.

"The mayor engaged in a full exploration of the options over the last several years," DeBerry said, but wants to ensure the city is considering all options.

"Are you anticipating there's going to be a new technological breakthrough in the next several days?" Daly asked before casting the lone vote against granting the continuance. As of the Guardian's press time, the plan's hearing was scheduled for May 20, but sources said June 3 would be more likely. Newsom Press Secretary Nathan Ballard would not confirm whether another continuance would be requested or discuss what alternatives the mayor's office is pursuing.

But it appears that the new technological breakthrough being pursued by the mayor's office is actually a retrofit of an older, existing power plant in Potrero Hill, owned by Mirant Corp.

Sam Lauter, representing Mirant on the issue, said the company has been answering questions about a retrofit from diesel to natural gas for its three turbines. Mirant already agreed to close the older natural gas units at its Potrero plant once the $15 million contract, which requires the plant to maintain the reliability of the power grid, is pulled by California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO). Lauter also said Mirant's redevelopment of the site for commercial use would still happen if the board decides a retrofit of Mirant is a better deal than building city-owned power plants.

As of the Guardian's deadline, no sources could provide any solid numbers on what a retrofit would cost and if pollution would be more, less, or equal to what the city anticipates from the peakers. But, Lauter told us, "The cost is considerably less than the cost of the peakers."

The contract with Cal-ISO could mean that the costs of retrofitting the diesels would be passed on to ratepayers. As for the pollution, Lauter said it's not an easy answer and depends on how often the units have to run: "It's not exactly correct to say they'd be less polluting, and it's not exactly correct to say they'd be more polluting."

Barbara Hale, SFPUC's assistant general manager of power, agreed there are still many uncertainties about retrofitting Mirant, including permits for the plant, restraints on how much it could operate, exactly how much it would pollute, and if it would even meet Cal-ISO's demand for 150 megawatts of in-city generation. "I'm told by engineers that when generators go through a retrofit, often their megawatt capacity goes down," Hale told us.