A Silver Lining

San Franciscans love blackouts! Or so a recent San Francisco Chronicle front-pager declared. Some folks, apparently, revel in the city shutting down from time to time. And what's not to love? Blacked out, San Francisco really is quite charming. In a Third World sort of way.

And surely during one of those peaceful moments, some optimistic soul somewhere was thinking that this isn't so bad. It's relaxing even, and besides, not having enough filthy power plants at least means we have less pollution, right?

Apparently, no.

It seems that, in California, we've discovered a way to have less power and more pollution.

The problem, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, is a number of so-called peaker plants, aging generators that are reserved for use only when the grid gets spread so thin it can't possibly survive without them. Because they're generally decrepit and dirty, their owners -- like Texas-based Duke Energy -- figured they'd rather meet emissions limits by running the plants only 877 hours a year instead of paying to clean them up.

That worked fine until this year's power pinch, when the peakers -- which have contracts that mandate them to operate when the grid gets tight -- have been forced to run almost nonstop. Duke's tiny Oakland plant, for instance, is on a pace to exceed its annual emissions limit by the end of April.

Gazillions in unforeseen profits aside, the ever-environmentally-conscious energy producers are taking the news hard.

"We're following the rules and we'll still probably get sued," mopes Duke spokesman Tom Williams.

And while all that ozone being pumped into the East Bay air definitely obscures visions of a low-voltage utopia, the Air Quality Management folks are pitching a compromise: The plants can keep pumping massive amounts of pollution as long as they buy their communities a few non-diesel buses or a ferry.

A new ferryboat. See? Another reason the energy crisis isn't so bad.

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