Newsom's power play

"Have they been concerned about what's clean, about our people?"

GREEN CITY Mayor Gavin Newsom finally outlined what he calls a "more promising way forward than the current proposal" of building two publicly owned power plants in San Francisco.

The way forward: retrofit three existing diesel turbines at the Mirant-Potrero Power Plant, while simultaneously shutting down Mirant's most polluting smokestack, Unit 3.

Newsom wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors just before a June 3 hearing on the power plants, describing a May 23 meeting that he convened with SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, California Independent System Operator President Yakout Mansour, California Public Utilities Commission Chair Mike Peevey, Mirant CEO Ed Muller, and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. CEO Bill Morrow.

"In the meeting, we vetted the possibility of retrofitting the diesel turbines [currently owned and operated by Mirant] and asked each stakeholder to give us the necessary commitments to advance this alternative," Newsom wrote. The board then voted to shelve the power plant plan until July 15 so the retrofit option can be vetted.

Most significant, Newsom's meeting with top dogs at energy companies, who stand to lose a lot from San Francisco owning its own power source — and the resulting correspondence elicited a new response from Cal-ISO, the state's power grid operator, about exactly how much electricity generation San Francisco needs.

For the first time, Cal-ISO said it will allow Mirant's Unit 3 to close as early as 2010, when the 400-MW Transbay Cable comes online, saying that the city no longer needs to install a combustion turbine peaker plant at the airport.

Sup. Sophie Maxwell expressed frustration that the questions she, her staff, and other stakeholders have been asking for the past several years are suddenly getting different answers. "I think we're seeing a big movement by Cal-ISO. This is huge. Before, we asked all these questions, [but] they weren't saying what they're saying now," she told the Guardian after the hearing.

When asked why she thought this was happening now, she simply pointed to PG&E. "Who stands to benefit from us not generating our own power? Who sent out all that stuff?" she asked, referring to the flyers depicting filthy power plants that PG&E has been mailing to residents in an effort to drum up public sentiment against the city's plan to build peakers. "Have they been concerned about what's clean, about our people?"

Some environmental activists are hailing the change as a triumph. "David has just moved Goliath, but we need to keep pushing," said Josh Arce of Brightline Defense, which sued to stop the city's plan to build the two power plants. He said his organization's goal is ultimately to have no fossil fuel plants in the city. But when asked about the retrofit alternative, he said, "We don't support it; we don't not support it."

Cal-ISO has insisted that San Francisco needs 150 MW of electricity to stave off blackouts. This grid reliability is currently provided by Mirant-Potrero, but the plant's Unit 3 is the greatest stationary source of pollution in the city. Bayview residents, who have borne a disproportionate share of the city's industrial pollution, have been agitating for more than seven years to close the plant. Much of the leadership has come from Maxwell, who represents the district and has championed the plan to replace the older Mirant units with four new ones owned and operated by the city.

That vision was integrated into San Francisco's 2004 Energy Action Plan, which Cal-ISO has used as a guiding document for the city's energy future. The plan outlines a way to close Mirant by installing four CTs and 200 MW of replacement power.