A power generating station is never entirely silent. Even while on operating hiatus
for maintenance, a plant emits a variety of sounds: the constant buzz of transformers
or the safety beep-beep-beep of trucks and lifts as they move back and forth across
full operations, much of this noise is drowned out by the generators, the hum
of fans, the rumble of pumps, or the whoosh and churn from water-discharge pipes.
the day of my last visit to Pacific Gas & Electric's Hunters Point power plant,
I can appreciate the more subtle sounds from the surrounding India Basin shoreline--lapping
waters and crying gulls.
I walk across the small parking lot to the office entryway, I feel like I'm entering
a Museum of Industry of the 20th Century--one that is complete with a 1960s-era
control room, a mid-1970s combustion turbine, vintage pumps, tall stacks, and
features that date all the way back to 1927, when the plant was built.
days before its scheduled shutdown, this plant already has generated its last
electron, ending more than 75 years of service.
exactly eight years have passed since PG&E and San Francisco reached an agreement
to close the Hunters Point station and tear it down.
in 1998, the utility was still contemplating divesting the plant, as it would
eventually do with the neighboring Potrero station and most of its other thermal
power plants. Efforts to replace the aging plant with new, state-of-the-art merchant
generators--notably the ill-fated SF Energy project proposed by AES Corporation--ran
afoul of the community's demands for environmental justice and elimination of
the Bayview/Hunters Point area's industrial legacy. The community is largely African-American
city was actively considering taking eminent-domain actions to condemn the plant.
became clear that it was long past time to close this particular power plant.
It had become a liability.
no matter what residents and politicians thought about the plant, it was still
necessary to provide reliable power to the city.
a decade would pass before alternative means of providing that reliability were
put into place, via new transmission lines. But that alternative also encountered
opposition from some locals along the way.
the effort has paid off.
day before my visit, the workers at Hunters Point held a small party in the lunchroom.
They were filling out their time, tying up loose ends and clearing out their desks.
The feeling was a little like the last day of school--after exams are finished
and before the final bell rings.
of the station's 54 staff members will retire, others will relocate, and a few
may have to look for new jobs. I spent some time with plant manager Greg Bosscawen
and a couple of the long-time plant operators, Lonnie Sweets and Ernie Sotto,
before their final day.
in particular, has a veteran's perspective on the situation, having started working
at this plant in November 1968, less than a week after exiting the Navy. "I
got out on the 8th, applied for a job on the 9th, took the test on the 10th, took
the physical on the 11th, and started work on the 12th. I've been here ever since,"
he told me. "I think I've had enough."
Lonnie's retirement plan involves sleeping late, restoring a vintage car, and
trying to keep out of his wife's way.
with about 30 years at the plant, is a bit more reticent to talk about his plans.
"I'm gonna miss this place," he said simply. "I'll miss the guys
I work with."
still has a few years left. He is planning to move over to PG&E's generation
projects under construction at Contra Costa and Colusa.
selling off most of its thermal power operations as part of the grand energy industry
restructuring (while maintaining its nuclear and hydroelectric plants), and losing
nearly all of its nonutility operations to bankruptcy, PG&E is getting back
into the generation business.
utility's few remaining experienced plant staff members, such as Bosscawen, are
critical links between the old and the new.
is this old power plant.
before there were many residents to complain about having to look at it, or breathe
in their worst fears of power plant pollution, or worry about toxic contamination,
Hunters Point was a welcome fixture.
Sweets remembered the old neighborhood. "This whole place has changed. The
meat packing plant used to be down where the post office is. The city dump was
right out the back, there, and a tallow plant was down the street. From our back
gate, out past Coca Cola at Third Street, were all wrecking yards. All mud and
Cargo Way is paved and Evans Street consists mostly of warehouse buildings and
offices. Houses on Innes Avenue that even five years ago sold for less than $200,000
are now sporting asking prices of up to $700,000.
pretty much held this city up," said Lonnie, recalling his most challenging
day at work-the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. "We were still running,
but we were barely running, knowing we were the only ones keeping the lights on.
Running around trying to keep the boilers and generators up."
plant didn't shut down then, and it proved crucial in helping restart the system
after widespread collapse. But, that's ancient history.
a few years, there will be little left to remind people about the power station,
its once-valued place in the community, or the folks who invested many decades
of their lives to keep the plant running safely and reliably.
the plant site will become another addition to the shoreline park; maybe it will
house a new generation of cleaner, quieter energy technologies. No one knows right
now, and there's still a lot of work to do to make whatever future happen.
Hunters Point generators have been silenced, and that's a good thing. But it's
also good to listen for the echoes from the past, because they remind us of how
we arrived at the place where we are.
to California Energy Circuit, 05/19/06 Reprinted with permission.
a different take on the Hunters Point closure story, from Greenwire 05/24/06