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Utility seeks OK of diesel use to avoid outages
By Chris Bowman, Bee Staff Writer
(Published May 23, 2001)
Desperately seeking megawatts, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. wants to pay local industries to fire up their high-polluting emergency diesel generators this summer to relieve the electricity grid and avoid rolling blackouts.
If approved by the state Public Utilities Commission, the proposal could increase the region's generating capacity by up to 50 megawatts, enough to serve about 50,000 homes and significantly minimize if not eliminate planned blackouts.
"Customer willingness to participate has been quite strong, if the proper incentives are in place," said Debra Reed, president of SDG&E, which serves 3 million consumers in San Diego and southern Orange counties. The utility estimates the program would cost $15 million.
Environmental opposition to date has come mainly from the state's chief air-pollution enforcer, the California Air Resources Board, which can influence but has no direct control over air pollution rules set by San Diego-area elected officials.
The board contends that the San Diego region, which already suffers some of the worst smog in the nation, would see its air quality deteriorate further if the notoriously dirty diesel generators are deployed en masse.
Most diesel generators have few or no pollution controls and, megawatt for megawatt, spew about 500 times more smog-forming emissions of nitrogen oxides than do new power plants fired by natural gas, said Michael Kenny, air board executive officer. The standby diesels also pump out significantly more particles of soot that can lodge deep in the lung and cause cancer.
"The SDG&E proposal would expend ratepayer dollars on extremely polluting and expensive power, decrease participation in more sound conservation programs and not make a significant difference in the number or extent of blackouts," Kenny said in a letter of opposition.
The utilities commission is scheduled to vote on the proposed "rolling blackout reduction program" Thursday in San Francisco. Many utilities have offered similar financial incentives to get businesses off the power grid at times of peak demand. The San Diego utility's plan, however, would take power-shedding where it has not gone before by explicitly rewarding the use of higher-polluting power sources.
"We have not gone down that path," said Kevin Payne, Southern California Edison's director of technical support for customers. Edison is proposing cleaner alternatives than diesels to get power-intensive businesses off the grid when supplies are tight.
Officials at Pacific Gas & Electric said they, too, have stopped short of enlisting the use of diesel generators. "We definitely see merit in being able to avert blackouts, and the diesel generator being the tool to do that, but we have concerns about the environmental impacts," said Staci Homrig, a PG&E spokeswoman.
Under the San Diego utility's plan, participating businesses would turn on backup generators at the utility's request and simultaneous disconnect from the electricity grid when power supplies are at Stage 3 -- nearly depleted.
Utility officials say the diesels would run "in strict compliance with all rules" of local, state and federal air pollution enforcement agencies. But unlike most local air pollution control districts, San Diego County's allows unlimited use of emergency generators when rolling blackouts appear imminent.
Richard Smith, assistant director of the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, said his board of elected officials believes the deployment of backup diesels would not only spare businesses millions of dollars in lost revenue but would also shield San Diego residents from greater pollution that would come when even more standby generators kick in during a blackout.
PG&E officials say it would be unfair for one area of the state to avoid power outages by cranking up dirty diesels when other areas of the state go dark, spokeswoman Homrig said. "If there are going to be blackouts, it should be blackouts for everybody," she said.
The Bee's Chris Bowman can be reached at (916) 321-1069 or email@example.com.
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