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California and the West

Davis Backs Silicon Valley Power Project

Energy: Governor urges quick approval of San Jose plant despite opposition by city and a powerful firm.

April 19, 2001|JENIFER WARREN and TERENCE MONMANEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Attempting to show that no region in California is safe from sacrifice, Gov. Gray Davis on Wednesday called for quick state approval of a controversial power plant proposed for the Silicon Valley.

The governor's action locks him in combat with the San Jose City Council, which has unanimously rejected the plant, and Cisco Systems, the computer networking giant that wants to build its worldwide headquarters on adjacent land.

In praising the proposed plant as a model of low-polluting efficiency, Davis said all regions of California must share the pain as the state expands its power supply--a key step toward ending blackouts and reducing sky-high electricity prices.

If approved, the plant would be the 14th licensed by the California Energy Commission since Davis took office. The 13th--a 510-megawatt plant near San Diego--was approved unanimously by the commission Wednesday with little controversy.

Rushing to expand the state's overtaxed energy supply, the governor has recently cut in half the approval times for the licensing of some plants. Six are under construction, according to Davis, and three are scheduled to begin operation this summer. A fourth--the AES Corp. generator in Huntington Beach that is due to be restarted --could add more megawatts to the supply this summer.

V. John White, an energy consultant in Sacramento, said the governor's newly active role as an advocate for power plants was a necessary step given the urgency of the supply shortage.

"It's very rare, and I wouldn't want him to short-circuit the commission's review process," White said. "But I think he's trying to reassure folks we're doing everything we can and not just sitting around in our hot tubs."

Davis urged the Energy Commission--a five-member panel dominated by his appointees--to stop talking about the project and grant it a license. If the commission does so, it will mark only the third time the panel has usurped a local government's authority over zoning.

"We are all in this together," Davis said, flanked by a forest of electric transformers near the Capitol. "We are one state, and we all have to make the sacrifices necessary to make up for the mistakes of the last 12 years, when no major power plants were built."

The governor said the plant's developers, Calpine Corp. and Bechtel Enterprises Holdings Inc., have made "numerous concessions" to San Jose officials, including an agreement to sell power exclusively in the region.

He added that the $300-million plant--expected to supply about 450,000 homes--will be equipped with state-of-the-art systems that make it "one of the cleanest plants to go up in the nation."

The commission's staff has recommended licensing the project, and some analysts said the governor's intervention--said to be unprecedented--should fuel momentum for approval.

Commissioner Robert Laurie--one of two members who held evidentiary hearings on the project and is preparing a recommendation for the full commission--would not comment on the plant's prospects. But Laurie, an appointee of former Gov. Pete Wilson, insisted that the project would receive an impartial review.

"I know the importance of independent decision-making," he said.

San Jose officials say the Calpine project conflicts with the aesthetics of its site in a bucolic valley 15 miles south of downtown. On Wednesday, Mayor Ron Gonzales urged the Energy Commission to "give serious attention" to the city's concerns about the plant's potential impact on residents and the environment.

"As the project has been designed and proposed to operate . . . it would present an unfair burden to our community," the mayor said.

A spokeswoman for the Calpine/Bechtel partnership disagreed and characterized the plant as key to restoring energy stability in the Silicon Valley, a region heavily dependent on imported power.

"This is the only project in the pipeline that can help Silicon Valley out of its predicament in the near future," said the spokeswoman, Lisa Poelle.

She expressed hope that the governor's comments, which cap numerous meetings between the partnership staff and Davis aides, would encourage San Jose to soften its stance on the project.

The 600-megawatt plant is proposed for a swath of open space currently leased to a rancher and occupied by grazing cattle. A preliminary ruling by Laurie and the other commissioner scrutinizing the project is expected by June. The full commission would take a final vote about a month later, and if a license were granted, the plant would begin operations sometime in 2003.

From the beginning, the plant has been dogged by opposition, and the Energy Commission has held more than 20 hearings--an unusually large number--on its fate.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for its heftiest foe, San Jose-based Cisco, said the company still has serious concerns about "health and safety issues."

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