In early 2001, the Calpine Corporation made plans for a 600-megawatt natural gas power plant on Hayward's Russell City shoreline. When the company approached the Hayward City Council, the council unanimously approved a contract to push forward the proposed Russell City Energy Center. The speed of its decision was unsurprising given that the state was in the midst of its 2001 energy crisis. And Calpine, a huge energy company with a stake in 37 major geothermal and gas-fired power plants in California, also was offering millions of dollars to the City of Hayward in one-time and recurring property taxes, and an extra $21 million in charitable contributions.
Calpine boasted that its Russell City Energy Center would be one of the greenest and most efficient plants of its kind. And in 2001, natural gas still had the reputation of being the clean alternative to coal-fired plants, and the proposed plant was based on some of the greenest technology in the industry. The California Energy Commission gave Calpine a green light in 2002 and again in 2007, when the energy company amended its permit to move the construction site 1,300 feet northwest of the original spot. Yet "greenest" is a relative term, and today many residents of Hayward and students and staff of nearby Chabot Community College are furious, arguing that the devastating effects of more pollution in their community would outweigh any benefits of inviting Calpine to the neighborhood.
At first glance, Hayward's "Russell City" is an unincorporated enclave of factories. It's not really on anyone's weekend getaway radar, unless you're driving a fuel delivery truck overtime. But about a mile and a half away from the industrial bustle, people live and work in a patchwork suburbia that fits tract homes from sixty years ago together with apartment complexes from the Nineties. A few blocks from the proposed site, you can hear kids shout at Chabot Community College's child care center, or see middle school students playing basketball at recess. The thin seam between residence and industry has been a fact of life for many Hayward residents, although the last ten years have called into question what residents will and will not accept in their backyard.
Opponents worry about the plant's possible health effects on nearby residents, and also about the safety of the plant's proposed proximity to the Hayward Executive Airport. Anthony Iton, former director of the Alameda County Public Health Department, wrote two open letters to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in 2009, both stating that the department had concerns about the plant's potential to "adversely impact the health of Alameda County residents — particularly those living, working, and studying in Hayward — those whom I have a mandate to protect." Susan Sperling, an anthropology instructor at Chabot College, who has worked with a taskforce of students, faculty, and staff who have been organizing in opposition to the plant, said that her students and peers were afraid of the toxins in an area with an already high rate of asthma and cancer.
Other opponents include expected players such as Communities for a Better Environment, EarthJustice, and Californians for Renewable Energy, but also some unexpected organizations, including the California Pilots Association, which worries that smoke plumes from the power plant might waft into the aircraft that fly into Hayward's airport and could disrupt the readings of the aircraft's instruments, or even render a pilot unconscious.
Calpine appears to be just one permit away from actually starting construction. Only the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has yet to approve the power plant, and both Calpine and its opponents expect that it will. The agency opened a public comment period in September and as been reviewing and preparing to respond to all 210 comments that it received. And while there is no date by which the agency is legally required to issue a permit, Calpine must begin construction in Russell City by September 2010 or its state permit will expire. Calpine's spokespeople do not foresee that the air district will delay issuance of its permit beyond next September.
The proposed Russell City Energy Center will burn natural gas to create electricity while also using the heat created by that cycle to create steam. The steam would power a second electric turbine, thereby producing more electricity than the typical natural gas power plant. The energy center would also use recycled wastewater from the City of Hayward to cool its machinery and generate steam, rather than diverting potential drinking water for the plant, as many older facilities do.
But many people who actually have to live and work near the power plant take issue with Calpine's claim to "greenness." A coalition of students, faculty, and staff from Chabot College, as well as citizens and environmental activist groups, say they are seriously concerned about emissions from the proposed plant. The California Energy Commission granted Calpine a permit to build based on expected emissions during peak operation, when the electricity and pollutant output is much more efficient, and not during start-up, when power plants generally produce many more times the amount of pollutants. So the emissions from an average day at the plant might be considerably higher than the energy commission expected. The final commission decision suggested that Calpine purchase top-of-the-line technology that would significantly reduce the amount of time needed for the plant to start up. Calpine cited economic reasons for not purchasing the technology and made some compromises with the CEC including a promise to limit start-ups between June and September. "Bottom line is it's still illegal," said Hayward resident and real estate agent Rob Simpson, who asserts that the plant's toxin output during start-ups will violate the federal Clean Air Act.
Not all of Hayward is opposing Calpine's presence in Russell City. The city council still supports the plant and is loath to turn down the millions of dollars in property tax revenue and the 650 temporary jobs and 30 permanent jobs that Calpine construction would create during a recession. Even after the $21 million in charitable donations promised the city in 2001 has been whittled down to $10 million, there's still political support for the Russell City Energy Center. "My view is, overall, there's more benefits than non-benefits," said Public Works Director Bob Bauman. "And that's always a judgment call when it comes to things as complex as this." Bauman said that after ten years of meetings by the city council and the energy commission, opponents had plenty of opportunity to voice their opinion. He believes that, with the sanction of the energy commission and probably the air district, Calpine's energy center will be safe and make economic sense for Hayward.
But there are uncertainties amidst Calpine's promises. Last summer, Calpine President and CEO Jack A. Fusco wrote in the San Francisco Sentinel that the Russell City Energy Center would "help replace older plants around the state and lead to improvements in air and water quality." However, Calpine spokeswoman Norma Dunn admitted that Calpine has no plans to shut down any of its older plants. She suggested that it was California state policy to phase out older, more polluting plants, and yet, spokesman Percy Della said that agency possesses absolutely no authority to shut down a private power plant to which it has previously granted a permit.
Hayward residents have had one previous victory against egregious pollution. At the time the Russell City Energy Center was initially proposed by Calpine, another energy company was also proposing its own, nearby Eastshore Energy Center. It would have been a similar but smaller power plant much closer to the Hayward city center. However, the citizens of Hayward rallied against the Tierra Corporation's plans, and the widespread resistance factored in the energy commission's decision to deny Tierra a permit to build. In its final 2008 decision, the commission cited the proposed plant's threat to aviation at the nearby airport, but also noted that "members of the Hayward community expressed vigorous opposition to the [Eastshore Energy Center]. Scores of individuals, community representatives, and elected officials participated at our public hearings. The Energy Commission's Docket Unit received more than 1,500 written comments on the [Eastshore Energy Center]."
The Russell City Energy Center is further away from the city center, making it "out of sight, out of mind" for the average Hayward resident. It's also much bigger than Eastshore would have been, so Calpine has a bigger stake in making sure it is constructed and the permitting process has been more drawn out. Susan Sperling says the residents of Hayward had success in opposing Eastshore but not Russell City because "the Russell City power plant had rather quietly been approved at a time when there was much less consciousness of environmental justice." Unlike Eastshore, she added, it "really came to our attention when it was further along in the process."
Opponents of the Russell City Energy Center aren't sure they'll have a happy ending like they did with Eastshore. But the permit process has moved so slowly that any number of complications could arise for Calpine, and opponents have been taking advantage of every opportunity to throw a wrench in Calpine's plans. The dogged opposition to the Russell City Energy Center has been propelled by ordinary citizens like Rob Simpson, who assembled more than one thousand Hayward residents and slogged through bureaucracy and legalese on his own time to stop the plant.
If the air district issues a permit, and it most likely will, opponents of Calpine can appeal the decision to the Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Appeals Board. Yet the EPA already saw an appeal hoping to shut down the Russell City Energy Center after California issued a state permit for the power plant, and many think the EPA would expedite any new appeal in favor of Calpine.
If opponents of the plant can't gain the upper hand via the regulatory process, some plan to try other methods. Simpson noted in a recent e-mail that since the City of Hayward still technically owns the property on which the energy center will be built, he and other residents might consider proposing a ballot initiative to take away the land from Calpine, or even ask a state or federal court to require Hayward officials to shut down Calpine's operations.