Pacific Gas and Electric Company has attempted to recast itself in recent years as a green-friendly utility. It has backed climate change legislation and has run extensive marketing campaigns, highlighting its investments in renewable energy. Two months ago, the utility made headlines when it publicly withdrew from the US Chamber of Commerce over the chamber's backward views on global warming. But PG&E's attempt to build two new fossil-fuel-powered plants in the East Bay that critics say are unnecessary is raising questions over whether the utility's eco-friendly image is more hype than reality.
PG&E is requesting state approval for two natural gas-powered plants in Antioch and Oakley. The utility maintains that it needs the 1,550 megawatts of power the plants will produce to meet future demand. But some environmental groups say PG&E has plenty of fossil-fuel-based energy already, and the two new plants will worsen California's greenhouse gas emissions. They also argue that PG&E should be concentrating on meeting the state's 20 percent renewable-energy standard for 2010 — and not embarking on new carbon-based projects.
The San Francisco-based environmental group Pacific Environment filed an official protest late last month with the California Public Utilities Commission over PG&E's proposals. The protest points out that from 2003 to 2007, while the utility was bragging about how green-friendly it has become, the actual percentage of renewable power it has used declined from 12.4 percent to 11.3 percent. "They're very savvy at public relations," said Rory Cox, California program director for Pacific Environment. "The reality is the renewable content of their energy portfolio has gone down."
PG&E's applications with the state include the 930-megawatt Marsh Landing Generating Station, just north of Antioch, to be operated by Mirant Energy. The other power plant would be owned by PG&E and be known as the Oakley Generating Station. It would produce 624 megawatts of power. Both facilities would use state-of-the-art technologies that don't require massive amounts of water for cooling.
In an interview, PG&E spokesman Blair Jones did not dispute the utility's renewable energy shortfall over the past several years. But he maintained that PG&E has signed enough contracts to buy renewables to meet the statewide 20 percent requirement in the future — although he would not specify when. He also said that PG&E needs reliable natural-gas power to offset the intermittency of wind and solar power, which are dependent on whether the wind blows and the sun shines. "To meet California's growing need for energy, it's important that we have a variety of sources, including reliable ones — 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said.
Jones said that the two new East Bay power plants will allow the utility to retire older fossil-fuel facilities, and pointed to two old Contra Costa County natural-gas units that are to be taken out of commission soon. But those two facilities are slated for retirement regardless of whether the two new power plants are built, and have been barely producing energy in recent years. According to the environmental group's protest, one of the units ran at just 1 percent of capacity in 2007, and the other, at 3 percent that year.
Again, Jones did not dispute the group's numbers, which came from the California Energy Commission. And when asked what other power plants PG&E plans to retire with the advent of the new East Bay facilities, he would not answer directly, saying only that "in general, it will help lead to the replacement of older power-generating facilities." He declined to answer further questions about how PG&E could meet its 20 percent state requirement if it keeps building new fossil-fuel plants and doesn't identify old ones for retirement.
Environmental groups contend that PG&E simply doesn't need the new plants. They note that the utility recently opened a new 530-megawatt natural-gas-powered facility in Antioch called the Gateway Generating Station. Moreover, the groups note that PG&E and other companies have embarked on a massive, $15 billion construction spree of natural-gas plants around the state since 1999. "The buildup of natural gas ... occurred just as the state was required to implement its renewables policy," Pacific Environment's protest notes.
In addition, a 2003 study conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that California should be decommissioning natural gas plants, not building new ones, if the state is going to meet its 33 percent renewable energy requirement by 2030. The study said the state should reduce its natural gas power by at least 8,000 megawatts over the next two decades. Two months ago, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order mandating the 33 percent requirement by 2020, making the retirement of natural gas facilities even more urgent. "Building any new natural gas capacity undermines California's green energy goals," Pacific Environment's protest adds. "Even repowering existing plants would amount to pushing aside the state's green energy targets."
Environmentalists also are concerned about adding another power plant to already-overburdened Contra Costa County. According to the California Energy Commission, the county already produces more megawatts of power than the other eight Bay Area counties combined. Contra Costa County is home to fourteen power plants that produce 5,638 megawatts of power. The next closest is Santa Clara County at 1,279 megawatts. Alameda County produces 616 megawatts. The total for the nine-county Bay Area is 10,008 megawatts.
Contra Costa County also has more than its share of oil refineries, chemical manufacturing facilities, and other major polluters. As a result, the county accounts for more than one-third of the total sulfur dioxide emissions in the Bay Area and is one of the highest emitters of carbon monoxide, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The county also has five times the number of facilities that emit air pollutants per square mile than the state average, according to the PG&E protest.
There's also ample evidence that the county's overabundance of industrial pollution has exacted its toll on residents, especially among minorities. For example, childhood asthma rates in the county are twice the national average, while black kids countywide are five times more likely to be hospitalized for the disease than white kids, according to the county health department. County death rates for cancer and respiratory diseases also are higher than the statewide average.
As a result, Pacific Environment contends that PG&E violated it own protocols and the CPUC's requirement to analyze the environment justice impacts of its proposed power plants. PG&E spokesman Jones said the utility would officially respond to the protest this week.