July 10, 2002




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by Marie Harrison and Don Paul

Public power, for real

LET'S LOOK AT some fallacies that may affect San Francisco's supply of energy – and keep poor people of color particularly close to cancer-giving power plants – for the rest of our lifetimes.

Sups. Tom Ammiano and Sophie Maxwell say they urgently want to relieve pollution and increase public power over utilities through the charter amendment for a municipal water and power agency they're cosponsoring for San Francisco's November ballot (see Opinion, 6/26/02). They say they want to phase out the two fossil fuel-burning power plants in southeast San Francisco – the Hunters Point plant owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the Potrero Hill plant owned by the Mirant Corp. – as soon as possible. They're convincing when they say they feel the suffering of southeast residents (the 94124 zip code has the highest rates of asthma and breast cancer in the city) from the diesel-burning plants. They say they want clean, renewable energy and independence from the corporate energy providers – PG&E and Mirant principal among them – who preyed particularly on California in 2000-01.

Unfortunately for the two supervisors and for the tens of thousands of San Franciscans who have pursued publicly controlled utilities in San Francisco, the charter amendment as it now stands would extend the life of the lung-fouling plants years longer than necessary at the same time that it furthers deregulated corporations' control of the city's energy.

The Ammiano measure needs the two amendments Sup. Matt Gonzalez has proposed. One Gonzalez amendment calls for the new agency to have the power to acquire PG&E's grid. The other calls for the agency to be controlled by an 11-member, district-elected board, not an appointed board.

We believe the Board of Supervisors should act to completely shut down the Hunters Point plant (which was closed for four months of 2001-02) by using its power of eminent domain and instituting phaseout steps no later than the end of this month. Programs to increase conservation and provide renewable energy can readily replace the 206 megawatts that are now maximal from PG&E's 73-year-old H.P. plant. The Community Energy Coalition is already working on the details of such a plan.

Here's why the charter amendment as it stands won't accomplish that: An appointed board would forever be removed from direct accountability to the public and forever subject to behind-the-curtain political and economic pressures. Under Mayor Willie Brown, an appointed board is almost certain to favor PG&E.

In 1998, Bayview-Hunters Point activists were promised the H.P. plant would be shut down by 2000. The agreement, signed by PG&E and Brown, a former attorney for PG&E, restricted the H.P. plant to 40 percent of maximal output. The plant has since run at double that output. Its particulate-spewing smokestacks still blow a quarter mile from Malcolm X Academy.

Now the closure of the Hunters Point plant is linked – via both the current charter amendment and the Electricity Resource Plan that's been drafted by San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission and the Department of the Environment – to construction of the Jefferson Martin power line that is to carry 350 megawatts up the peninsula and into San Francisco. PG&E is to operate this line. PG&E will thus be able to further hold this city and its people subject to its rates.

PG&E and its bonus-hungry executives need to be taken out of the game of providing vital services to San Franciscans. The people of San Francisco's southeast should not be used again in a ploy that furthers an already bankrupt company's power. For such real and lasting solutions to happen, however, we need Gonzalez's amendments, we need PG&E and Mirant out of the game, we need the Hunters Point plant shut down with steps that begin at once, and we need a Board of Supervisors that will take power in order to provide power to the people who elected them.

Marie Harrison works for Greenaction and is a columnist for the San Francisco Bay View. Don Paul works with public housing residents through Public Housing Is a Human Right.