Power possibilities

Power possibilities

The city’s energy policy is still uncertain

By Amanda Witherell

San Francisco’s energy future is in flux. On Nov. 4, voters decided the fate of Proposition H, a plan for 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. On the same day, the Board of Supervisors was set to consider a proposal from Mayor Gavin Newsom to retrofit the 32-year-old Mirant Potrero power plant to meet a state mandate for local electricity generation.

The results of both votes occurred after the Guardian deadline, but either way, the city’s energy policy is uncertain, particularly after serious doubts about the viability of the mayor’s proposal were raised at an Oct. 22 Land Use and Economic Development Committee hearing.

The retrofit was hastily developed as an alternative to longstanding plans to replace heavily polluting units of the Mirant plant with new, cleaner, city-owned peaker plants. That plan was derailed after a meeting in May between Newsom and seven Pacific Gas and Electric Co. executives, who were apparently concerned about the city generating its own power.

The Mayor’s office calls the retrofit a “bridge” to a renewable energy future and contends it can be cheaper than and as clean as the city’s peakers. Yet at the hearing, Mike Martin, who’s evaluating the retrofit project for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said no retrofits have ever reached the emissions goals cited in Newsom’s proposal.

Jeff Henderson, senior project manager for Mirant, defended the $80 million price tag for the project (which is about $30 million cheaper than the city’s plan) but also said that they were “giving a price on a project that’s never been done before.” Martin said the permits alone would be twice the price stated in a Mirant-commissioned feasibility study.

Chair of the committee Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who represents the district where the plant is sited, cast cost aside, saying that human lives and the lowest possible emissions were more important to her. Her district has the highest incidences of asthma and cancer in the city.

The retrofit would still emit more nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter than the city’s peaker plants but the Mayor’s Office is banking on it operating less, thus emitting less overall. The numbers crunched for the study by CH2M Hill presume Mirant operating about 156 hours a year, though it is permitted for 877 hours. The city has sued the company in the past for exceeding its permitted hours.

When questioned if the 97 percent emissions reduction proposed was possible, Henderson said, “The only thing that leads us to believe that is we had vendors who would say they could meet that under contract.”

Maxwell invited three potential vendors to the hearing. All said the industry standard was 90 percent emissions reduction and that it was infeasible, if not technically impossible, to reach 97 percent. To try may even result in a net gain of particulate matter emissions because the plant would need more ammonia catalyst.

But the Mayor’s Office remained confident in the project. “The experts that presented before the committee were all experts attached to the CT project, so I would not consider them independent third-party experts,” Newsom’s director of government affairs Nancy Kirshner-Rodriguez told the Guardian.

Bruce Schaller, vice president of Kansas-based power company Sega, said he wouldn’t bid on this job under the current parameters because, “We would be associated with a project that was a failure.”

Tom Flagg, president of Equipment Source Company, said the project was “completely illogical and impossible to do.” He pointed out that emissions vary widely. “You have surges in emissions levels. Sometimes it’s 94 percent, sometimes it’s 84 percent … A 97 to 98 percent reduction is impossible because in order to maintain that they have 100 percent reduction at times. It’s an average.”

The need for new power generation in San Francisco has been pushed by the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), but environmental groups have urged the city to challenge that mandate. Former California Public Utilities Commission president Loretta Lynch, who spoke against the retrofit plan at the hearing, told the Guardian afterward, “The ISO are ideologues, not engineers. They have no basis in fact that we need any peninsula power production.”

Supervisors passed a resolution asking the SFPUC to develop a transmission-only plan to meet Cal-ISO’s reliability demands. The SFPUC said it will present something within the next couple of months.

Originally published November 5, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian