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Easy cell?
Officials say the city's energy problem continues; solar power needed now more than ever

By Rachel Brahinsky

San Francisco's power situation remains fragile, city officials and renewable energy advocates told the Board of Supervisors' Rules Committee at a hearing last week, urging the committee to jump-start two solar power initiatives approved by voters in November 2001.

Combined, the two initiatives will create the largest city-managed solar utility in the world. A successful solar program in San Francisco could become a national model, and the solar power industry is closely watching the city's progress. Because of that attention, certain attendees said they were concerned the city isn't moving fast enough.

Officials and advocates alike told the committee Jan. 17 that the move is imperative. "The 21st century is going to be the solar century," said Ed Smeloff, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's assistant general manager for power policy. "There's no doubt that fossil fuels are limited and running out."

Smeloff warned the committee that San Francisco's own immediate energy needs are even more critical today than in the past. That's because the two power plants located in the city are not generating their usual share of electricity.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s Hunters Point power plant has been closed for maintenance for several months, Smeloff said. And electricity production at Mirant Corp.'s Potrero Hill power plant is restricted to about 13 percent of its potential capacity. Mirant overused the plant last year at the peak of the state energy problem, so air quality managers have curtailed power production there.

That means even a minor accident along the electricity transmission route into San Francisco could leave the city vulnerable to an extended blackout. In December 1998 a worker's error caused a break in the transmission system and left some 375,000 customers in the dark for hours.

Solar power could alleviate this problem, experts say, because solar energy production peaks on hot afternoons, just when consumers need it the most. San Francisco's solar system could eventually produce 60 megawatts or more at those times (see "Green City," 9/26/01).

Energy officials are still sorting out exactly how to purchase solar panels. One option is to buy them in bulk up front. But the city is more likely to put smaller projects out to bid one at a time, over the course of several years.

This week the SFPUC is beginning its search for a contractor to build an 80- to 120-kilowatt solar system on the roof of Moscone Center. (There are 1,000 kilowatts in a megawatt, so the project represents a tiny fraction of what's planned.)

Opponents of the piecemeal approach warned that completing the project too slowly could set a bad precedent for other communities.

One of the key questions that's slowing things down is whether to carry out the two initiatives, Propositions B and H, separately or together. Though they share a common larger goal, the plans contain significant differences.

Prop. B, promoted by Sup. Mark Leno, called for the city to install 10 megawatts of solar panels to fuel city buildings. Prop. H, championed by Sup. Tom Ammiano, had a more ambitious vision: to develop 50 solar megawatts (or more) to serve residents and businesses. Ammiano's program qualifies for state subsidies, while Leno's does not. Both called for energy efficiency and wind power to support the solar plan.

To deal with the larger energy-reliability problem, the SFPUC is drawing up a comprehensive energy plan for the supervisors. The plan will offer several scenarios, including one that suggests combinations of solar and wind power, conservation, and other alternatives to filthy fossil fuels. The plan will also explore the idea of creating a public power agency to serve residents and businesses. A draft of the plan is expected by mid February; the supervisors will probably vote on it in early spring.

E-mail Rachel Brahinsky at rachel@sfbg.com.