San Francisco talks a good talk about being a green and progressive leader, but the walk is often something quite different.

Tomorrow, the Board of Supervisors will vote on a contract to build 200 MW of fossil fuel-burning power plants in a low-income neighborhood that is already overburdened with pollution and toxic sites. Ironically, at the same time, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is increasing spending on the fight against global warming, even in the face of a state budget deficit. What’s wrong with this picture?

This is a question that Bayview activists and environmental and civic organizations have been asking during the past year. When the city’s Public Utilities Commission resurrected an old plan to replace the old Mirant Potrero Power Plant with four natural gas-fired turbines, we assumed that the PUC Commission and the Board of Supervisors would reject it. The old Mirant plant can come down without replacing it. Instead, by narrow margins, both bodies have succeeded in pushing forward a project that would increase our reliance on fossil fuel energy, while at the same time rejecting calls for clean energy alternatives.

Increasing reliance on fossil fuels

The combustion turbines are known as “peaker plants” because the PUC claims they’ll only run during periods of peak energy demand. But the contract before the Board of Supervisors would allow the power plants to run 4000 hours per year – an average of 11 hours a day, seven days a week.

SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research), which opposes the power plants, points out that the economics of the venture require the longer operating hours. The new power plants would exist for at least 18-to-30 years, but the state subsidies would end in 8 years. After that, San Francisco would foot the bill to pay off loan interest to the tune of several million dollars a year. Which means that the plants would have to start operating at longer hours to sell more power in order to pay for themselves.

The end result is that the new power plants would generate more greenhouse gases and more pollution than we currently have in the Bayview Hunters Point and Potrero Hill neighborhoods. These are areas that already have significantly higher rates of asthma and cancer than the rest of the city.

Unfortunately, the SF PUC bureaucrats see the state subsidies for the quarter-billion-dollar project as free money. Some also see it as a path towards public power. To help promote the project, the PUC has been hiring consultants to come up with justifications for building of the power plants.

Despite the bureacratic rationalizations, it is clear that the peakers aren’t needed for energy reliability. The old Mirant power plant can come down without replacing it with more fossil fuel power. A new transbay power cable will bring up to 400 MW of power to San Francisco starting in 2010. Unlike other cities, San Francisco has no demand management program, where big electric customers agree to reduce energy usage during peak time in trade for incentives. Such a program could be easily created.

San Francisco will also be reducing demand by 105 MW through energy efficiency upgrades that are part of the Community Choice program now underway. This program also has 31 MW of solar power on the drawing board, and other proposals to ramp up solar power are now being proposed.

We are asking that the city create a new energy reliability plan that takes all of this into account, and to present such a plan to state regulators. California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey has indicated that such a plan would work. What it will take are a few undecided Supervisors to vote against the contract, and a firm stand by the Mayor.

The politics of green

Gavin Newsom, who has been polishing his image as a “green mayor” in preparation for a run for Governor in 2010, could determine the outcome of this issue. The fact that the fossil fuel power plants will produce 50 times more power than all of the solar energy currently installed in San Francisco does not point to a green city.

Originally a proponent of the power plants, Mayor Newsom has been backing away from the project in recent weeks and is now officially neutral. A word from him to one or two Supervisors could stop the power plant contract from being approved.

Progressive politicians, including Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi, Tom Ammiano, Chris Daly, as well as State Senator Carole Migden oppose the new power plants. Some Newsom allies, including Supervisors Bevan Dufty, support the project. Like Newsom, Assemblyman Mark Leno has no position, according to a spokesperson.

But another Newsom ally, Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, has been a vocal opponent of the power plants. She authored legislation that would have put the power plants on hold while a green alternative plan was drafted. Last week, a Supervisors committee killed Alioto-Pier’s legislation in a hearing that went on past 9pm.

Dozens of Bayview residents waited for hours for the chance of speaking for two minutes in opposition of the power plants. The sad fact is that if these power plants were proposed for South of Market near some of the new luxury condo skyscrapers, the peaker plant proposal would have been dead on arrival.

Van Jones, founder of the Ella Baker Center and an opponent of the power plants, has pointed out that putting the resources into clean energy would create green-collar jobs for the same community that is now being targeted for decades of continued air pollution.

I’ve been advocating for the creation of a green jobs program at City College, to train the under-employed in disadvantaged communities for jobs in solar and other renewable energy fields. These efforts would be hastened by a large investment in solar power on the scale of the peaker plants.

It’s time that San Francisco’s energy policy step into the 21st century and be part of the solution, not the problem.

John Rizzo is a Trustee on the San Francisco College Board and Political Chair of the Sierra Club’s Bay Area chapter.