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Power Politics 

Two major S.F. energy projects are in the works. Do we need both? The question isn't really being discussed.

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
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On Thursday, the California Energy Commission will try again to hold a public hearing on the "environmental justice" of the Mirant Co.'s proposed new power plant in southeast San Francisco, which will be big enough to power the equivalent of 700,000 homes. The hearing is supposed to let Energy Commission staffers bounce off the public their preliminary evaluations of whether or not the project would disproportionately pollute a poor and/or minority neighborhood.

This isn't the first time they've tried. The first attempt occurred in June, when a series of workshops on the proposed plant was held -- and was by all accounts a debacle -- in which the Energy Commission's socioeconomics expert said the environmental justice analysis had been "dumped on" her and wasn't very complete (see "Gray Skies," July 4). That did not go over well among environmentalists and the community members who live in some of the city's poorest and most polluted sections.

The Energy Commission hoped to remedy the situation with a follow-up meeting in July, but that was canceled at the last minute to allow the staff to address a half-inch stack of public comments from the previous sessions. "To go in front of the public unprepared again would not be a good thing to do," explained Energy Commission spokesperson Dale Edwards.

Still, Edwards said, anyone who shows up at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House (Aug. 2, 6:30 p.m., 953 De Haro St.) expecting a polished analysis will be disappointed.

"It still won't be complete," Edwards said. "But the staff had done some work that they didn't write about in the [earlier report] or explain at the meeting. That was a failure on our part that we're going to address here."

The other thing the meeting won't feature is consideration of what environmentalists -- and a May 29 Board of Supervisors ordinance -- are demanding: a plant smaller than the massive, 700-megawatt facility being proposed. Environmentalists have maintained that the expansion is unnecessarily large for an already polluted neighborhood that has six other Mirant-owned power plants nearby, as well as another at Hunters Point that almost everyone -- including its owner, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. -- agrees is so old it should be shut down.

They also argue that two ambitious solar energy proposals on the November ballot should be factored into any decisions on other power plants. That probably won't be the case, even though the solar projects would add significantly to the city's energy supply and seem to have a good chance of passing -- at least judging by a hearing at City Hall last week.

That meeting of the Board of Supervisors Finance Committee was packed, which is usually a sign of controversy ahead. But the meeting turned out to be a standing-room-only lovefest, with dozens of commenters glowing over the solar projects, without so much as a lone dissenter.

The primary draw for that meeting was an ambitious plan to incorporate renewable energy into city government, championed by Supervisor Mark Leno. The bond issue would put solar panels -- enough to power 10,000 homes -- on city-owned properties ranging from the University Mound Reservoir to the roof of the garage at Fifth and Mission. It would also fund enough wind-powered generation for 30,000 homes.

Sitting in his City Hall office last week, Leno shared his vision with SF Weekly. He wants foggy San Francisco to become the world's leader in solar energy. Granted, to those unfamiliar with the workings of fog-proof photovoltaic panels, it sounds more hallucinatory than visionary. But as it turns out, the $100 million initiative is downright pragmatic.

The bond would begin paying for itself within months, give the region some market leverage against the ever-fluctuating prices charged by Mirant Co., and, most important, wouldn't pollute the air and water.

"What we're proposing," Leno said, with evident self-satisfaction, "is truly dramatic. We could actually increase the world's solar production by 10 percent. ... And if everything works out, we could start as soon as January."

By "everything," of course, Leno meant San Francisco voters signing off on his ballot initiative.

On that ballot, voters will decide on another large renewable energy program -- proposed by Supervisor Tom Ammiano -- that could match Leno's plan in size by incorporating solar energy in residences. The city could eventually meet as much as 11 percent of its energy needs with solar if both plans pass.

At the Finance Committee meeting, one solar energy cheerleader, Mark Westhoff from the state Department of Energy, proclaimed, "This is exactly the direction we were hoping our city would go. This cuts into our overall CO2 emissions and does something about global warming."

From a certain perspective, Westhoff is right, of course -- solar and wind generators do not pollute. But looked at another way, he's wrong: Renewable energy only benefits the environment if it reduces the amount of energy generated by polluting oil, gas, and coal plants. So far, at least, that doesn't seem to be happening in San Francisco.

The Mirant plant and the solar proposals are on entirely separate political tracks. Decisions on one seem unlikely to affect decisions on the other.

Potrero Hill activists and environmentalists would like nothing better than to use the huge solar projects as an argument for downsizing the new plant, or at least for closing the Hunters Point facility. But that's proving to be a tough sell. Mirant has scoffed at any suggestion that it shrink its Potrero Hill expansion plans. And the state's grid operator, which has the ultimate say on whether Hunters Point can be shut down before 2006, hasn't indicated what criteria it will use to make that decision.

At the same time, the current energy crisis has made the state reluctant to curtail any plans for power plants. In a letter in this week's SF Weekly, California Energy Commission Executive Director Steve Larson writes, "There is nothing unnecessary about adding new generation to California's supply, regardless of the facility size."

For Alan Ramo, a professor of environmental law at Golden Gate University who works with the Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice, Larson's statement reinforces the notion that the Energy Commission has yet to prove it is capable of taking the southeast's disproportionate pollution into account during this siting project. He suggests Mirant be forced to pay for more solar panels in the area as a condition for building the Potrero Hill plant. "Our hope is to have fossil fuel minimized, and that's what's in the city ordinance. I assume the city will not allow the project to go forward unless the ordinance is complied with."

Leno himself seems to personify the disconnect between the two energy projects. He offers no opinion on the controversy over the new plant. But he does want San Francisco to invest in solar energy.

"Look, I think this is a very significant step," Leno said. "But it's not a magic wand."

About The Author

Jeremy Mullman

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