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What a Difference a Winter Makes

Issue 2 and Volume 105.

What public opposition forced Calpine Corp. to give up doing last summer might get done by Houston, Tx.-based El Paso Merchant this year in California’s Bay Area. Worries about California’s energy crunch are helping approve plans to build a 51 MW peaking power plant at San Francisco International Airport – one of several peaking units proposed for the area to meet summer demand. The plant would be built on a parking lot beside United Airlines’ jet hangar.

“Only one person has made a public comment,” said Roberta Mendonca, the state’s public adviser for the plant, called the Golden Gate Power Project. “The silence seems to say people are most concerned with making sure their lights stay on.”

Calpine withdrew its plans in November to build four such plants around the Bay Area, citing public opposition. But that was before unprecedented winter power shortages made a bad situation in California even worse. The location would allow the plant to tie directly into power lines that make up the backbone of the peninsula’s power grid.

If El Paso and the airport have their way, the peaking plant would eventually serve as a backup power supply for the airport, generating enough electricity to prevent outages like the one that darkened San Jose International Airport in December, and El Paso would build a 570 MW plant in the same area. Although the 51 MW plant is exempt from full environmental impact reviews and other bureaucratic approvals under emergency legislation passed last fall, approval of the larger power plant would require full-scale environmental reviews and a year’s worth of other studies.

Yet while public opposition to power plants may have softened in direct proportion to the effect energy shortages are having on household budgets, bureaucratic opposition could mean separate hurdles for El Paso and the airport. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which governs all construction within 100 feet of the bay shore, believes the airport is an inappropriate site for a power plant. It reasons that a power plant is a “non-priority” use of airport land according to Will Travis, the commission’s executive director. Considering that the airport already says it needs more land for new runways, commission officials say it would be wrong to exacerbate the airport’s land woes by allowing a power plant to take up what land still exists. Airport officials say the proposed power plant location could not be used for runways or other airport uses.

Also, the plant’s location might violate environmental discrimination laws that bar industrial projects, such as power plants, from unfairly burdening communities whose residents are predominantly poor or people of color.