Cal-ISO still won’t approve full shutdown of Potrero power plant

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A group of San Franciscans who’ve been pushing for complete closure of the Mirant Potrero Power plant traveled to Folsom, Calif. today to testify before the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), a quasi-governmental agency that has required the plant to stay open for reliability purposes despite longstanding opposition from elected officials and grassroots organizations.

“I keep hearing the word ‘stakeholders,’” noted Marie Harrison, an organizer with San Francisco-based Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, following comments delivered by the Cal-ISO’s Board of Governors. “I simply want to let you know that your biggest stakeholders are not at the table -- and that be us,” she said. “I realize that the grammar is not quite correct, but I did that purposely, because I needed to have your attention when I say that. Unless we are at the table with, quote, the stakeholders, you don’t really have a true representation.”

The aging power plant has been opposed by multiple community organizations, Boards of Supervisors, and San Francisco mayors, but it remains in full operation. And as of today's Board of Governor's meeting, the most the Cal-ISO would commit to is removing the largest unit by the middle of next year, despite an agreement that the San Francisco City Attorney's office struck with Mirant to shutter the entire plant by the end of 2010.

Others who turned out from San Francisco included John Lau, an aide to Sup. Sophie Maxwell; Theresa Mueller, representing the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office; and two representatives from the Brightline Defense Project, a nonprofit organization that focuses on environmental justice.

“We really are almost there,” Mueller told the ISO Board of Governors. “We would like to push you as much as we can on the Unit 3 closure.” As for the other units, "We’ve submitted comments to you over the course of the last few months based on work that PG&E has done, work that we’ve done, and work that the ISO staff has done, and we believe those units will not be needed after 2010," she added.

Unit 3 is the primary electric generating unit at the plant. Powered by natural gas, it operates close to 24 hours a day, and community organizers say it has contributed to health problems in the city’s Southeast sector. At today’s meeting, Cal-ISO representatives said that Unit 3 could be released from a requirement to stay in operation by the middle of next year -- provided the TransBay Cable comes online as scheduled. That's much later than San Francisco activists and elected officials had hoped for.

The TransBay cable, an undersea power line that will provide an alternative source of electricity, is expected to become operational by March of 2010. Shutting down Unit 3 in the middle of 2010 would allow time to prove that the cable is fully operational, according to the ISO. But Mueller noted that she’d received reports that the TransBay Cable could be operational as early as January, and urged the ISO to lift the requirement sooner if possible.

Meanwhile, the Cal-ISO did not make any promises regarding Units 4, 5, and 6 -- the dirtier, diesel-fired units that are fired up during peak demand. However, they are conducting a technical analysis to determine whether the three polluting diesel units would be needed beyond 2010.

“It is a high priority for us to look at what it would take to release the remaining units from the RMR contract, and those studies are going on as we speak,” a Cal-ISO representative said during the meeting. “We should have a lot clearer picture on that by the end of the year, in terms of whether we should need those units through 2011.”

Joshua Arce, a representative from the Brightline Defense Project, framed the closure as a moral issue. “It is the environmentally just thing to do to relieve our city’s most vulnerable communities of this power plant and its burdens upon our environmental health,” Arce said. “At this point, it’s in your court. We’re going to be at every meeting you have.”