During America's Cup, clean-air program takes a step backward

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A $5 million clean-air program along the San Francisco waterfront will be temporarily halted to accommodate the America's Cup, prompting criticism from environmental advocates.

In October of 2010, representatives from the Port of San Francisco joined former Mayor Gavin Newsom and Princess Cruises to unveil a shoreside power installation at San Francisco's Pier 27 for cruise ships transporting tourists to the city. The fourth system of its kind ever installed, the shoreside power hookup was touted as a way to improve local air quality by supplying passenger vessels with municipal power, making it unecessary for ships to run large diesel generators while at dock.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provided $1 million to finance the emissions-reduction project. Additional financing came from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and Port capital funds.

Modern cruise ships use between 6 and 12 megawatts of power. The Port estimated that 19.7 tons of carbon dioxide would be reduced for every 10-hour ship call, while harmful air pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides would be cleared while diesel generators were shut down. The shoreside power was fed by San Francisco's gravity-based Hetch Hetchy Water System, a relatively green energy source.

The environmental gains from shoreside power could be temporarily lost, however, when America's Cup racing teams take over Pier 27 in 2012 and 2013 during the high-profile sailing events.

"With just one stroke of a pen, it's gone," said Teri Shore, program director at the Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN), based in Marin County. While the shoreside power hookup is disabled, "The ships will be coming in and parking, and running their diesel engines" at other waterfront piers.

The Port had already anticipated temporarily halting the shoreside power for a year during construction of a Pier 27 cruise terminal, Brad Benson of the Port of San Francisco told the Guardian. "Assuming there were no America's Cup, it would already not be in operation ... for approximately one year," he explained. After a year of construction that will mark the first phase of the cruise terminal project, the America's Cup will move onto the site, he said. "As a result of the America's Cup, shoreside power is not going to be available for one year."

By 2014, when cruise ships will be required by state law to have the ability to plug in at the shore rather than run polluting generators, the shoreside power will be in operation again, Benson added. The America's Cup Event Authority -- the primary race organizing team -- has agreed to finance a $2 million relocation cost.

Shore, who is working with a coalition of environmental advocates that's closely watching America's Cup plans, said she hopes to see the city find some way to offset the impacts from the lost air-quality improvements. As long as ships' generators are running, "there's an exposure level," she pointed out.

Benson said the port is starting to look at how it could offset the impacts, saying there might be ways of reducing carbon outputs during the event in order to make up for the lost emissions reductions. "I can't tell you whether we could achieve the same level of emissions reductions that shoreside power would provide," he said. "It's very effective."

On Monday, July 11, the city is expected to release a draft environmental impact review for the America's Cup project.