April 2, 2003
It's funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
Power plant row?
By Rachel Brahinsky
The San Francisco power grid is in such poor shape that the long-promised closure of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s Hunters Point power plant might be delayed indefinitely, a report released March 26 shows.
Even worse: the city's thirst for power is such that residents of the southeast corridor could be forced to accept a power scheme under which a massive new generator is built a mile away from the Hunters Point plant and three new small turbines are built just down the road.
John Borg, a member of the Potrero Power Plant Citizen's Advisory Task Force, said it would be a nightmare scenario for neighborhood air quality if all of the power plants in addition to the existing generators at Potrero Hill were up and running at the same time. "It could be the worst case coming," said Borg, who lives in Potrero Hill. "It's a pivotal time."
The draft report, by the state's Independent System Operator (California's power grid manager), reveals new vulnerabilities on the city grid, and raises new questions about the future of power generation in San Francisco.
Further complicating matters and weakening public trust, the Georgia-based Mirant Corp. which wants to build one of the new power plants has been accused by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of price gouging during the height of the state's energy crisis.
Promise not kept
The concerns about Mirant and the revelations of the ISO report add pressure to the city's attempts to remedy an environmental injustice: for years low-income communities have borne the brunt of the city's power plant pollution. That's one reason why the old plant was going to be shuttered, and why the new report could create problems.
The report shows a bottleneck on the city's power grid. "We found ... there were some constraints showing up," the ISO's Gary DeShazo told us. For the flow of electricity, "it's like going from a four-lane highway to a two-lane highway."
As San Francisco Public Utilities Commission power policy manager Ed Smeloff explained, that means "the city's transmission system can carry less power than previously thought."
The information complicates a long-standing dispute over closing the Hunters Point plant.
Mayor Willie Brown promised to shut down the plant back in 1998, under intense pressure from a community that believes its high rates of heart disease, childhood asthma, and cancer may be linked to emissions from the 74-year-old plant (see "PG&E's Poison Power," 10/24/01). But the ISO has insisted the plant stay open.
The city's clean power-based energy plan says it should be shuttered by 2005. Now that date could be extended indefinitely.
Community members say they are outraged. "This is just another parlor game. We don't trust the ISO or PG&E," Marie Harrison, of the environmental group Greenaction, told us. "And we haven't seen the city say no to ISO to keep its promise to the community."
Sup. Sophie Maxwell's office wasn't prepared to comment on the situation. Maxwell represents Potrero Hill and Hunters Point.
It's unclear why PG&E which built the city power grid never shared information about the system bottleneck before. The company did not respond to our questions for this story.
In the past, utility representatives have said PG&E is committed to closing the plant, but they didn't mention the grid problems that could get in the way. During its campaign against public power Proposition D last fall, company officials said they had every intention of closing the plant and that they were the ones with the expertise to do so. It seemed a salient argument against Prop. D. Had the public known there were deficiencies in the system, it might have been more willing to try something new.
Instead, the ISO investigated, and its report may be the first comprehensive look at the local system. "PG&E has performed studies, but they looked at it in pieces," the ISO's DeShazo said. PG&E, meanwhile, is disputing some of the ISO's research.
But the city doesn't have to accept the ISO's guidelines without a fight, Smeloff told us. He said officials could "express a policy position that it is more important to shut down Hunters Point than to have perfect [grid] reliability." Beyond that, if the city had a full-scale public power system, as envisioned by Prop. D, officials would have the right to independently assess and repair grid problems. Then PG&E might not be able to hide such vital data from the public.
Miles of power plants
Also on the table are four "peaker" power generators given to the city as part of a state settlement with the Williams Corp. The city hopes to use the small turbines to help allow for the Hunters Point shutdown but the ISO report could mean they won't be enough.
Smeloff said that to reduce costs he may propose putting three of them at Pier 70 right next to the existing Potrero Hill plant, and about a mile from Hunters Point as one option.
Meanwhile Mirant has been pushing for the right to build a huge new generator for several years, against widespread community opposition. The company has often argued that its proposed plant could replace PG&E's. The new ISO report calls this claim into question, though it doesn't necessarily dispute it. ISO staff plan to present firm requirements for the plant shutdown at the April 24 ISO board meeting in Folsom.
Last month Mirant was named in a wide-ranging federal report on price gouging during the California energy crisis. Mirant power traders were found to have engaged in Enron's so-called Fat Boy scheme, under which it gave California grid operators incorrect information about power demand to create the illusion of power shortages to send prices higher. Mirant traders conspired with traders from other companies to raise power costs for consumers, FERC says.