Fueling change

The water board can stop Mirant

EDITORIAL As a lame duck Board of Supervisors winds down, and the economic crisis and bloody budget cuts absorb most of the political focus at City Hall, there's a major environmental issue creeping toward a January deadline — and city officials need to present a united front.

At issue is the Mirant power plant in Potrero Hill, an aging fossil fuel dinosaur that has been belching pollution into the southeastern part of the city for years. It's been hard to shut down — the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), the regulatory agency that controls the electric grid, wants some sort of generating facility inside the city lines. Sup. Aaron Peskin, backed originally by Mayor Gavin Newsom, sought to replace the Mirant plant with city-owned combustion turbines — so-called peakers — that would run only when needed. But Pacific Gas and Electric Co., fearing city ownership of power production, fought that proposal, and some environmentalists, arguing that the city should build no new fossil fuel plants at all, also opposed the plan.

On May 5, seven PG&E lobbyists descended on the Mayor's Office and gave Newsom his marching orders: drop the peakers proposal or we'll spend whatever is necessary to kill it. Newsom suddenly decided he didn't like the peakers after all, and started pushing a PG&E-backed alternative: the Mirant plant, which runs on diesel and natural gas, could be converted to run entirely on natural gas, thereby reducing emissions.

The emissions numbers are pretty complicated. If the city ran the natural-gas-fired peakers for only a limited amount of time, they would emit less pollution than the Mirant plant. Obviously neither option is pollution-free; neither is sustainable; and neither is perfect.

Still, the worst of all possible alternatives would be allowing Mirant to continue to operate a private plant. At least the peakers would be city-owned and city-run. The city would have some control over how often they were fired up and could shut them down when more renewable technology becomes available. The Mirant plant — even after a retrofit — would continue burning fossil fuels; the private company would continue to profit; and the city would have no control at all.

Besides, it's not clear that the plant even can be retrofitted for natural gas. The project that Newsom, PG&E, and Mirant are proposing has never been done before. Mirant may not be able to get the financing; the technology may not exist.

Which means that it's entirely possible nothing will change. If all goes the way PG&E wants, the city will abandons the peakers, the dirty Mirant plant will continue to run without a retrofit, and the people of southeast San Francisco will continue to suffer.

But there's a problem facing Mirant, and it could potentially change the whole picture. The plant sucks 200 million gallons of water out of the bay every day for cooling — and its Regional Water Quality Control Board permit expires at the end of this year. The board has said it's not inclined to renew the permit, since the plant can't meet modern water-quality standards. So as of January, Mirant could be forced to shut the plant anyway — unless the company, and Cal-ISO, find a way to force the water board to back down.

That's where the city comes in. The mayor, the supervisors, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera should publicly inform both the water board and Cal- ISO that San Francisco does not want the permit renewed for the current Mirant plant. Even if Newsom thinks the facility can be upgraded, it's hard to argue that the existing plant is anything but a disaster. And unless and until there's a credible, peer-reviewed retrofit plan, Newsom has no business siding with Mirant and PG&E.

The water board could force the issue.

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