Ongoing threat

Ongoing threat

PG&E asserts dominance while Mayor Newsom waffles on city-owned power

By Amanda Witherell

The debate over city plans to build and own two combustion turbine power plants, a project Mayor Gavin Newsom has made a last minute effort to alter, shows that public power — and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s fear of it — is still a significant issue at City Hall.

Newsom, a past advocate of the project, pulled the plug on its progress May 13. The proposal for the natural gas–fired power plants to handle peak energy demand (called “peakers”) was up for approval at the Board of Supervisors until Newsom requested a one-week continuance.

Christine DeBerry, the mayor’s liaison to the board, told supervisors the mayor would use the time to aggressively pursue better options than the peakers, even though it’s an item that spent eight years on the planning block and was approved by the Newsom-appointed San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

“What can be aggressively pursued in the next week that hasn’t been aggressively pursued in the last few years?” asked Sup. Chris Daly, one of the four supervisors publicly opposed to the plan, questioning DeBerry on why the mayor and his SFPUC hadn’t put forth the best energy project.

“The mayor engaged in a full exploration of the options over the last several years,” DeBerry said, but wants to ensure the city is considering all options.

“Are you anticipating there’s going to be a new technological breakthrough in the next several days?” Daly asked before casting the lone vote against granting the continuance. As of the Guardian‘s press time, the plan’s hearing was scheduled for May 20, but sources said June 3 would be more likely. Newsom Press Secretary Nathan Ballard would not confirm whether another continuance would be requested or discuss what alternatives the mayor’s office is pursuing.

But it appears that the new technological breakthrough being pursued by the mayor’s office is actually a retrofit of an older, existing power plant in Potrero Hill, owned by Mirant Corp.

Sam Lauter, representing Mirant on the issue, said the company has been answering questions about a retrofit from diesel to natural gas for its three turbines. Mirant already agreed to close the older natural gas units at its Potrero plant once the $15 million contract, which requires the plant to maintain the reliability of the power grid, is pulled by California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO). Lauter also said Mirant’s redevelopment of the site for commercial use would still happen if the board decides a retrofit of Mirant is a better deal than building city-owned power plants.

As of the Guardian‘s deadline, no sources could provide any solid numbers on what a retrofit would cost and if pollution would be more, less, or equal to what the city anticipates from the peakers. But, Lauter told us, “The cost is considerably less than the cost of the peakers.”

The contract with Cal-ISO could mean that the costs of retrofitting the diesels would be passed on to ratepayers. As for the pollution, Lauter said it’s not an easy answer and depends on how often the units have to run: “It’s not exactly correct to say they’d be less polluting, and it’s not exactly correct to say they’d be more polluting.”

Barbara Hale, SFPUC’s assistant general manager of power, agreed there are still many uncertainties about retrofitting Mirant, including permits for the plant, restraints on how much it could operate, exactly how much it would pollute, and if it would even meet Cal-ISO’s demand for 150 megawatts of in-city generation. “I’m told by engineers that when generators go through a retrofit, often their megawatt capacity goes down,” Hale told us. Each Mirant diesel unit currently puts out 52 megawatts.

As for other options Newsom requested from the agency, Hale said they’re exploring how to get more demand response and efficiency from the existing grid.

That suggestion comes from Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which actively opposes the city’s peaker plan and sent representatives to meet with Newsom’s staff May 5 (while Newsom was in Israel with Lauter, who said the two did not discuss Mirant or the peakers while overseas), shortly before he sought the delay.

PG&E spokesperson Darlene Chiu confirmed the contents of the proposal as presented to the mayor’s staff, which includes ways to eke more from the grid as well as a new transmission line between two substations.

Tony Winnicker, spokesperson from the PUC, said of PG&E’s plan: “We absolutely support each of these projects, think they’re long overdue improvements to the city’s transmission reliability, and hope they are committing the necessary funding to begin and complete them.”

He added that there is little in the plan that differs from a past PG&E proposal that Cal-ISO rejected — except the new transmission line. But, he said, its target completion date of 2012-13 was “very ambitious, given that they haven’t even started the permitting.”

PG&E’s Chiu, a former spokesperson for Mayor Newsom, didn’t respond to a question about the time frame for such a project, nor did she comment on whether PG&E considers the city’s ownership of the peakers a threat to its jurisdiction.

She didn’t have to. While City Hall scrambled to come up with an alternative that hasn’t been vetted during the last eight years of community meetings, city studies, and negotiations, PG&E was telling its shareholders that the threat of public power is alive and well.

At the May 14 annual meeting of PG&E investors, held at the San Ramon Conference Center, CEO Peter Darbee assured the assembled, “I, too, am concerned about municipalization and community choice aggregation.”

He was responding to a criticism from an employee and member of Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20, who said PG&E shouldn’t be contracting outside the company because it created an experienced proxy workforce ripe for employment by another entity, like a municipality, that would be a threat to PG&E’s jurisdiction.

In responding, Darbee recalled the recent efforts in Yolo County, where the county attempted to defect from PG&E and join the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. “Peter, it’s half-time, your team is down, you better get directly involved with this,” he said of the potential loss of 70,000 customers. The company mustered 1,000 employees to volunteer their time, walking from house to house and knocking on doors, prior to the November 2006 vote. “I was one of them,” he said. “That vote went overwhelmingly in favor of PG&E.”

Beyond knocking on doors, PG&E dropped $11 million on the campaign, outspending the competition 10 to 1.

But Darbee said it was a real victory in a state like California. “There’s always been in the water a desire for public power,” he said, adding that 30 percent to 40 percent of the population approves of municipally-owned utilities.

Customer service, Darbee went on to say, is the best defense against threats to PG&E. And for the past two years, PG&E’s corporate strategy has been focused on that. To that end, its ranking in an annual JD Power customer satisfaction survey rose from 51 to 43 last year for the residential sector, and from 46 to a lofty second place for business customers.

But the JD Power survey also ranks municipal utilities, and 2007 results show PG&E was outpaced by three municipalities — the Salt River Project, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which also took the highest ranking in the nation. *

Disclosure: Amanda Witherell owns 14 shares of PG&E Co. common stock.

Originally published May 21, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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