San Francisco Fights the Power

Last year, San Francisco set ambitious energy goals: seven megawatts (MW) of power were to be generated from renewable sources by 2004, and 50 MW by 2012. In 2001, voters approved Propositions B and H to fund solar power and conservation projects. But so far, the only project completed is a solar generator at Moscone Center, which produces 688 KW—just enough for the Center itself. Another solar installation is slated for the sewage treatment plant at Bayview Hunters Point. No plans for new wind projects have been announced, and a test of tidal power is in early planning stages. But recently, renewables have been overshadowed by a proposal to build a massive fossil-fuel power plant that could supply almost half the city’s needs. With energy in abundance, will renewables lose momentum?
Mirant Corporation has requested a license to expand its existing Potrero Hill gas-fired power plant into a $432 million behemoth to supply 540 MW of energy to any highest bidder. City officials have threatened to deny the facility its water and siting permits. They’d rather install four much smaller gas-plants, to run only at peak times.
Residents in Potrero Hill and nearby Bayview Hunters Point, having suffered through years of power plant pollution, are loath to see any new plants approved, especially a huge one, even if it replaces a few older facilities. “We’ve got toxic sites, a Navy shipyard, PG&E and the sewage treatment plant,” says Lynne Brown of Bayview Hunters Point. “We’re inundated with toxins—two freeways that are west of us; diesel trucks on Third Street; diesel buses in the community. It’s a never-ending saga.”
New natural gas plants won’t guarantee cheap energy: On October 14, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that San Franciscans would soon see energy bills rise 30 percent, thanks to increased demand for natural gas, which fuels most California power plants. That, renewables advocates say, is something the state should consider before it locks into another contract for natural gas. “Companies like Mirant say ‘We’re so much cheaper than solar,’ but then when you factor in the fuel costs, they’re much more expensive,” says Paul Fenn, who wrote Proposition H. That $432 million price tag, he notes, covers only hardware—so long as natural gas supplies vary, energy prices will be erratic.
Only renewable power sources can free the state from the volatile fossil fuels market, says Fenn, which is why it’s important to pursue alternative energy. “You have Dick Cheney saying ‘Solar is cute, but it’s not a real power source.’ And he’s right. It’s a boutique industry. We’re saying let’s do a $250 million investment in solar; $100 million in wind. Let’s produce not just 1MW in renewables here and there, but 50MW. Those are numbers energy companies will take seriously.”

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