Turning the tides

Turning the tides

Have Newsom and PG&E teamed up to steal tidal power from the public?

By Amanda Witherell

On June 19 the Board of Supervisors cast its final ayes in favor of San Francisco’s new plan for public power, Community Choice Aggregation, which allows the city to own or purchase as much as 51 percent of the electricity for its residents and businesses from renewable sources. The plan’s goal is to meet or beat the rates of the city’s current provider, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which draws 13 percent of its power from renewable sources. CCA has become the popular choice for public power fans, who have long pushed the city to get a divorce from PG&E’s monopoly.

But across town the same day, it looked as if Mayor Gavin Newsom was renewing nuptial vows with the $12 billion utility. In front of the charming backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, Newsom announced a partnership between the city and PG&E to look into tidal power. He promised “the most comprehensive study yet undertaken to assess the possibilities for harnessing the tides in San Francisco Bay.”

PG&E committed as much as $1.5 million, which will bolster $146,000 from the city and a $200,000 grant from the Sidney E. Frank Foundation.

The news conference had public-power advocates wondering about Newsom’s real commitment to renewable, locally owned power. “I’ve asked all the members of the Board of Supervisors,” Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told the Guardian. “That press conference — nobody knew it was taking place.” He said a mayoral aide later apologized that his office hadn’t been informed, but he added, “I don’t think it was a mistake that it occurred on the same day as the vote for CCA.”

The Mayor’s Office said the scheduling was purely coincidental and had been on the books for at least three weeks, but it did not issue a news release about the news conference, and no media advisory was sent to us.

Parties involved in the deal say it will bring more money to researching a shaky, untested technology — even if it means that the power any project generates could be controlled by PG&E. “We’re always going to have that issue of ownership later, and I’d rather get the research data into the public domain,” said Jared Blumenfeld, director of the city’s Department of the Environment (SFE).

Blumenfeld insisted that the deal would give the public direct oversight of all research, including work done by the private utility. The memorandum of understanding between San Francisco, PG&E, and Golden Gate Energy, which holds the permit license for tidal energy in the bay, makes it clear that all information will be shared by all parties and open to public scrutiny.

Newsom made a similar announcement in September 2006, when he called for the creation of a Tidal Power Advisory Group and allocated $150,000 for a feasibility study through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the SFE. But that program hasn’t gone far — and the little that has happened is secret.

A review of the agendas and minutes of SFPUC and SFE commission meetings shows only scant and passing mention of tidal power. The Tidal Power Advisory Group eventually came to fruition as one of five subcommittees of the Clean Tech Advisory Council, a 16-member board of local “green” business executives, entrepreneurs, and environmental experts that was formed at the call of the mayor in November 2005. Chaired by William K. Reilly, an Environmental Protection Agency administrator under George H.W. Bush, the council neither announces meetings or agendas nor makes public its minutes.

A special subcommittee devoted to tidal and wave energy has worked closely with the SFPUC to advance a feasibility study. The contract for that study went without bid to URS Corp. and will continue in conjunction with the new PG&E partnership.

URS, an international engineering, design, and construction firm based in San Francisco and formerly run by Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, has a long history with the city. The tidal power study was not subject to competitive bids and was awarded to URS because the company had undertaken significant computer models of the entire Bay Area for a past proposal to fill in part of the waterway to extend runways at San Francisco International Airport, Blumenfeld said. That plan was shot down, but the environmental impact report it spawned contains information relevant to studying tidal power.

Additionally, URS has an as-needed work agreement with San Francisco, Blumenfeld said, “and everything moves glacially” in regard to contracting with the city.

The kind of tidal power being considered — called “in-stream” and analogous to a wind farm of water-pushed turbines — is such a new technology that there is only one deployment in the world that’s generating more than one megawatt of energy. One megawatt is enough to power about 1,000 average homes. The Electric Power Research Institute released a study in 2006 concluding that the Golden Gate has the potential to generate 237 megawatts but suggesting that only 15 percent of that — about 35 megawatts — would be available without negative environmental impact.

“I think that number’s made up, personally,” said Mike Hoover, a partner at Golden Gate Energy. “We know the energy that’s coming in and out of the bay is more than that.”

URS, which has conducted no other tidal power studies in the United States, may support those findings, but the outlook at this point doesn’t bode well. “It appears EPRI used optimistic assumptions on water velocities,” the SFPUC’s Power Enterprise director, Barbara Hale, wrote to officials in the Mayor’s Office and at the SFPUC and the SFE. “Our feasibility study estimates around 10 MW extractable power, peak, and five MW on average with a commercial plant.” Additionally, Hale wrote, the cost per kilowatt-hour could be closer to 20 cents than the 5.5 cents the EPRI predicted.

Hale told us it’s difficult to say how much power would make dropping a pilot project into the bay feasible, and the best-case scenario has a pilot project four or five years away. An actual grid connection of any significance would be several years in the future.

Then there’s the huge issue of who would own the power. San Francisco Bay is considered a public trust — and under any reasonable policy scenario, the power generated by its tides should belong to the public.

After hearing about the mayor’s handshake with PG&E, Mirkarimi introduced legislation at the June 19 board meeting that would require any power harnessed in the bay to be publicly owned. He said tidal technology is still at an “embryonic stage,” but the memorandum of understanding “that was unilaterally devised by the mayor and the PUC at the exclusion of the Board of Supervisors demonstrates an early intention to give the new technology to the profiteers, and that alarms me.”

Originally published June 27, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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