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Published Saturday, September 2, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News
Officials push to beef up power grid
Planned energy sources spark concerns of environmental impact Plan pushed to bolster power grid BY STEVE JOHNSON
Mercury News Alarmed about California's precarious energy supply, state officials are pushing for an unprecedented $2 billion buildup of the Bay Area's electrical grid, including a dozen new power plants and 20 miles of new high-voltage lines.
But the ambitious plans, coupled with passage by the Legislature on Thursday of a bill to speed approval of new plants, are causing concern that the scramble for new energy sources may result in fast-track projects that are environmentally unsound.
Some even say the plans amount to overkill, since the proposed amount of new electricity generation in the Bay Area is more than three times higher than the state's own estimates for the growth in demand.
``People ought to be suspicious when, as a result of a brownout or two, there's suddenly a push by energy companies for massive expansion of the power grid,'' said David Lewis, executive director of the Oakland group Save the Bay. ``If speeding up the process means ramrodding approval without thorough environmental assessment, then it's a bad idea.''
The amount of proposed work in the Bay Area ``would be substantially more than for any other two-year period,'' said Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman with the Independent System Operator, the state agency that recently sent its wish list to the Legislature.
Manho Yeung, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. director of transmission planning, agreed that the scope of the plan is unprecedented. But he argued that it is vital to prevent a repeat of the blackouts that hit the Bay Area on June 14.
``It's critical,'' he said. ``We have to have it to serve our customers.''
Because of those concerns, lawmakers this week passed the California Energy Security and Reliability Act, which would cut the time needed to approve plants deemed to pose no major environmental hazards from one year to six months. With Gov. Gray Davis expected to sign the bill soon, state officials are hoping it helps rush the proposed Bay Area projects along.
Among the most controversial items in the Independent System Operator's plan are seven major new power plants and at least five much smaller ones -- including some that might be mounted on flatbed trucks.
Two projects under way
Two of the bigger plants, the Los Medanos Energy Center and Delta Energy Center, recently won state approval and are under construction in Pittsburg. The others would be in San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, with the proposed Metcalf Energy Center in South San Jose designated as one of the state's two ``highest priority'' plants.
That's encouraging to officials at Calpine Corp. and Bechtel Enterprises, whose proposal to build the Metcalf unit has run into opposition from critics who fear it might pollute the air, hurt property values and conflict with other local development plans.
``It's definitely good news,'' said Ken Abreau, the plant's development manager at Calpine, which also is building the delta facility and is considering two more Bay Area plants, including one in North San Jose. He predicted that the state's push for more electrical generation, coupled with this summer's energy woes, will make it easier to win approval for such projects, because ``people recognize that this is really a problem.''
But Elizabeth Cord, who heads a neighborhood group that is battling the Metcalf facility, disagrees. She distrusts the Independent System Operator because its board has ties to power companies. And she called any effort to speed development of the projects ``a terrible disservice to the people of California.'' Besides, Cord added, ``we don't need all these plants.''
Indeed, how much new power the Bay Area requires could become a crucial question in the debate about what gets built.
During peak periods of electrical use this summer, the Bay Area consumed 9,100 megawatts, with one megawatt sufficient to power about 1,000 homes, according to state officials. That use is expected to increase by up to 400 megawatts a year over the next few years. Thus, by 2003, when state officials hope all of the projects in their plan are completed, the Bay Area presumably would need about 1,200 megawatts more than it now uses.
But the various Bay Area plants that the state plan lists would actually generate 3,400 megawatts more than that by 2002 -- for a total of 4,600 new megawatts. And the plan sent to the Legislature doesn't even mention the proposed addition of more than 1,000 megawatts at the Moss Landing plant, which was recommended for approval Thursday by a California Energy Commission review board.
Jim Detmers, managing director of operations for the Independent System Operator, said the extra cushion of power is crucial because about 3,000 of the megawatts that the area now uses come from plants that are so old they may have to be shut down soon. He declined to say which plants those were, however, because disclosing that ``market sensitive'' information could hurt the companies that own them.
Detmers insisted that the new plants in the plan ``are very essential to maintain reliable service to the Bay Area,'' although he acknowledged that some of them may never be built.
In fact, several of the plants have been in a kind of limbo recently, without any noticeable push by the companies to seek license approval.
Several plants proposed for San Francisco and San Mateo counties have generated little community attention, according to officials with the California Energy Commission, which licenses such units. But when officials with several environmental groups heard last week of the Independent System Operator's plan to mount several small power plants on Bay Area barges or trucks, they voiced concern, especially since they just successfully defeated a similar barge proposal earlier this summer.
``There's going to be some environmental combat over at least the siting, or attempts to site, dirty power plants,'' said Bradley Angel, executive director of the non-profit San Francisco advocacy group Greenaction. ``We have made an organizational decision to scrutinize this issue a whole lot closer.''
Power plants aren't the only proposed improvements that are under fire. The plan also recommends four new substations, which house transformers, circuit breakers and other voltage-regulating equipment. And these substations would be hooked up to 20 miles of new high-voltage lines atop metal towers that in some cases would be 150 feet high.
Energy officials say those new lines, as well as numerous upgrades to existing lines, also are essential, because the Bay Area's system for transmitting power is so overloaded it sometimes can't handle all of the electricity that homes and businesses need.
One of the substations would be built on 24 acres near Highway 237 and Zanker Road in North San Jose, and would be connected via a new 7-mile-long power line to the Newark substation in Fremont. Critics, however, have denounced the lines for everything from posing a threat to endangered wildlife to being ugly.
An even bigger project would feature two new substations in Livermore and Dublin, and a new 13-mile-long high-voltage line. Dozens of residents turned out at a meeting in May to object.
Russ Fulwood, worried most about the effect on property values.
``Right now we have an unobstructed view of the whole valley,'' said the 55-year-old Fulwood, who is retired and lives in an unincorporated part of Contra Costa Valley not far from one of the proposed substations. If the 150-foot-high towers get built, however, ``they're going to be directly in our view.''
It's not that he's unsympathetic to the state's electricity plight.
``I understand that they have an excessive demand for power,'' Fulwood said, noting that he and his wife bought their home in 1988 when there were far fewer people in the area. Even so, he said, before rushing to build such projects, ``you need to do some planning and look at the impact it's going to have.''
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), September 02, 2000