Controversial Metcalf plant a California 'poster child'

Under a near continuous threat of rolling blackouts, California's San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce agreed more power plants are needed and specifically endorsed the controversial 600 Mw Metcalf power plant project in San Jose. Whether the endorsement of a powerful business organization with millions of dollars potentially riding on the outcome will overcome local opposition is one of the many questions dogging the debate over electricity in California.


Ann de Rouffignac
OGJ Online

Under a threat of near continuous blackouts, California's San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce agreed more power plants are needed and specifically endorsed the controversial 600 Mw Metcalf power plant project in San Jose.

Whether the endorsement of a powerful business organization with millions of dollars potentially riding on the outcome will overcome local opposition is one of the many questions dogging the debate over electricity in California. The San Jose City Council and mayor unanimously rejected the power plant in November on grounds varying from land use issues to �health concerns.�

Up to now, the chamber had stayed on the sidelines, while the city, other big business, state agencies, and Calpine Corp., the plant developer, duked it out in a 2-year struggle over the plant, which has received endorsements by organizations ranging from the American Lung Association to the Sierra Club.

�This plant is the poster child for what is going on in California,� says Kent Robertson, Calpine spokesman. �There comes a point when you have to start scratching your head."

Critics, including members of the new Bush Administration, point to California's lengthy and convoluted power plant siting rules as one of the reasons the state is experiencing an electricity crisis. Gov. Gray Davis has called for streamlining the process.

Recent outages, the daily threats of more rolling blackouts, and a gloomy prognosis for power supply this summer startled chamber members into reexamining the Metcalf proposal. Silicon Valley sits in a transmission constrained area with a voracious appetite for power.

The only way to solve the power needs of the region is to locate a plant in the area, according to the California Independent System Operator. �We need it. We need it there and we need it now,� says Ken Heiman, spokesman for the San Jose Silicon Valley chamber.

More hearing scheduled
But state regulators say it will be at least June before the California Energy Commission (CEC) acts on the proposal, assuming intervenors don't bring up additional issues and further delay the process. Calpine applied for the siting permit in April 1999, and the CEC staff recommended approval, subject to certain conditions, in October 2000.

Between now and June, the committee making the final recommendation to the full commission will first consider all the evidence gathered from 10 days of evidentiary hearings. �This is an atypical power siting case," says Rob Schlichting, commission spokesman. "This is very unusual to have so many powerful and sophisticated intervenors."

The Metcalf project has generated significant opposition from the San Jose community and from a powerful opponent, Cisco Systems Inc. Cisco plans a new office park near the power plant site and worried publicly the plant operation would adversely affect employee health. Sources close to the controversy say Cisco�s opposition stems instead from aesthetics. The plant would ruin the view from the company�s planned new office park.

�Other opponents are residents of a neighborhood several miles away that don�t want to drive past the plant to take their children to a school a few miles south of the plant,� says Lisa Poelle, Calpine spokesperson.

Calpine is installing state-of-the-art gas turbines that will emit less than 2 ppm of NOx, the lowest level of emissions in the US, company officials say. The company is also spending an additional $10 million on enhancements to the project, including a building facade to make the plant look like an office building and abating the plume so it doesn't look like smokestack, says Robertson.

The mayor�s press officer said opposition to the plant was not based on energy issues but on health effects of the plant. The city didn�t consider the energy crisis when opposing the power plant, said David Vossbrink.

In fact, the city�s mayor is not convinced there is a shortage of power generation at all. �The crisis is not one of generation capacity,� says Vossbrink.

While this may be a popular opinion in California, the California Independent System Operator has consistently warned Californians about shortages of power that will persist well into next year.

The chamber says the mayor and council made decisions based on information that may have been incorrect. �At the time of the hearings in November, council members were told by city staff that there was no reason to construct more power plants in the state,� said Steve Tedesco, president of the chamber.

Even if local San Jose officials refuse to approve the power plant on the land use or zoning issue, the CEC has the power to override that decision and go forward with the plant, says Schlichting.

But, he said, the city refused to incorporate the plant�s site completely into the city limits as requested by Calpine. The location lies on the border of the city limits. The city can refuse to sell water to the plant for cooling. Calpine said San Jose is �threatening� to withhold water for the plant.

�The CEC can�t force the city to sell water to the plant,� says Schlichting. �I expect that there will have to be some compromises on both sides.�

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