Power play

A multinational development company is putting up big bucks for the Trans Bay Cable, but sustainable power advocates call it "a waste of resources"
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The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will soon decide the fate of the Trans Bay Cable (TBC), a privately financed, underwater power line that would plug the city's electric grid into power plants in the East Bay.

Backers call the cable the best way to avoid blackouts, like those the city saw in the wake of the energy deregulation debacle of the late 1990s. But green power activists argue that the developer of this 57-mile extension cord is cashing in on California's blackout fears and that approving the project would go against the city's commitment to finding sustainable sources of energy.

Australian financial firm Babcock and Brown has staked $300 million on the cable's construction and offered more than $28 million for a community benefits package if the project is approved. The developer plans to profit on its investment with a guaranteed 13.5 percent rate of return, granted to it by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the sale of power running through the cable. Power plants in and around Pittsburg would generate most of the juice going though the 400-megawatt-capacity line. Ratepayers across the state would foot the bill.

The California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), the public benefit corporation in charge of the state's electric grid, has asked for San Francisco supervisors to approve the cable as soon as possible so that it can begin service by 2010. Cal-ISO's sole mission is to keep the lights on, and when there isn't enough power in the system, it coordinates the dreaded rolling blackouts that most Californians remember from the energy crisis. CAL-ISO representative Larry Tobias brought up those dark days at a San Francisco Port Commission meeting Feb. 27. "Without the Trans Bay Cable project," he warned, "we will be back in that situation again." Electricity from the TBC, Tobias told commissioners, will give the city's system the "reliability" to prevent blackouts.

Tobias said if supervisors reject the cable project, CAL-ISO will have to seek alternative proposals. At a January meeting of the city's Local Agency Formation Committee (LAFCo), Tobias brought up a plan previously put forward by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which looked to bring power across the bay from a substation in Moraga. In 2005, PG&E asked for more time to finish its design. CAL-ISO rejected its request and chose the TBC instead.

But some local activists say the city does not need the cable, or any other privately funded power line. Steven J. Moss of San Francisco Community Power told the Guardian a 400-megawatt cable would flood the power grid with "an enormous oversupply" of electricity. "That would be a waste of resources," he said. Moss claims CAL-ISO is understandably obsessed with reliability but the probability of its doomsday blackout scenarios is incredibly small. How small? At the Port Commission's March 13 meeting, Moss said his calculations indicate there is only a "0.0002 percent chance that the [TBC] will be needed."

Even in the worst-case scenario, Moss told us, the city is only "looking at a 50- to 60-megawatt gap [in energy supplies] 10 years from now." His figures, he said, are based on Cal-ISO's own estimates, adding, "The real way to plug that gap [is] demand management — solar, wind, all the things that San Francisco talks about constantly and that are good for us."

At the January LAFCo hearing, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi questioned officials from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) about the city's plans to acquire its own power line from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir's hydroelectric stations. The city already owns most of the 200-mile transmission route from the Yosemite power stations, but PG&E possesses the last 30 miles and charges the city fees to bring electricity up the Peninsula from Newark.

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