California man wins round two against power plants

TRACY, CALIFORNIA - Bob Sarvey lost his first power plant fight when the Tracy Peaker Plant went on line in 2003.

But it was not a total loss. Sarvey, a 55-year-old shoe store owner and advocate against air pollution, sat through hearing after hearing and, over time, became fluent in the convoluted prose and process of energy regulation.

So when a new, and much larger, power plant was proposed southwest of Tracy, Sarvey picked another fight.

And this time, he won.

In late September, the California Energy Commission essentially pulled the plug on the Tesla Power Project, ending an eight-year tussle in which Sarvey, whose wife and children suffer from asthma, was a key player.

"I got lucky," Sarvey said.

"They took my argument for a change."

In 2001, a subsidiary of utility giant Florida Power & Light applied for certification to build the $600 million, 1,120-megawatt natural gas plant in Alameda County, just west of the San Joaquin County line. The plant would have generated enough power for more than 1 million Central California homes.

As Sarvey saw it, Alameda would get the revenue, and San Joaquin would get the pollution.

Not to mention the cumulative impact of two additional power plants proposed in the area, on top of the operational peaker plant.

But due in part to Sarvey's opposition, nothing ever happened at the Tesla site, except a lot of paperwork.

The energy commission certified the project in June 2004, but Florida Power & Light decided to amend it in 2006. The company, however, did not respond to requests by the commission for more data supporting those changes.

Sarvey, meanwhile, went so far as to petition the California Supreme Court to reject the plant, although the court never took up the issue.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. took over the Tesla project in 2008 and asked for approval of a much smaller version of the plant — 560 megawatts. That request was denied. Then PG&E asked for a five-year extension to build the plant, which the commission denied in September, saying too much had changed since the plant was first proposed.

PG&E could apply for a new license, but that would be a long and costly process. Spokesman Blair Jones said the utility was disappointed in the commission's decision and has not decided what to do.

Starting from scratch would require doing environmental analyses all over again, which Sarvey argued is exactly what should happen after so many years have passed. Tracy has grown, and some criteria for air quality have changed.

"I suspect they'll come out with something new. It's never over," Sarvey said.

He argues that rather than costing taxpayers millions of dollars by obstructing the project, he has helped the state save money by derailing PG&E's plans to possibly amend their proposal.

"I'm not anti-power plant," he added. "I just want to do it right. Everyone uses electricity, so let's spread out these plants."


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