SAN FRANCISCO - The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday voted to support retrofitting the city's only power plant instead of building a new, debt-financed power station in the southeastern part of the city.

Yet the city's Board of Supervisors is still scheduled next week to consider the PUC's earlier request to build the new power plant using $273 million of city-issued certificates of participation. Despite its new policy, the PUC chose not to withdraw that request yesterday.

Confused?

Welcome to the long, convoluted debate over how to provide clean, reliable electricity to the nation's most liberal, environmentally conscious big city.

The bottom line is that the COP-backed natural gas-fired power plant plan is probably dead, according to staff members to policymakers on both sides of the debate. Construction of a new fossil fuel-powered plant doesn't have the votes to pass the Board of Supervisors, the support of the Public Utilities Commission or the mayor.

The utility commission and Mayor Gavin Newsom - who previously backed a new power plant - now want Mirant Corp., a private utility, to retrofit its existing, diesel-powered plant to run on natural gas. The appeal of the retrofit is that it will decrease pollution from the existing plant, cost the city nothing and buy time until San Francisco can either find an environmentally acceptable way to generate power or convince state electric regulators to allow the city to import all of its electricity.

"This is a bridge," said utility commissioner Richard Sklar. "We want to get ... to a transmission-only alternative - no fossil fuel generating capacity in the city."

It's not yet clear if the retrofit can garner enough support to move forward, either. There's disagreement about whether a retrofit can match the pollution reductions from building a new plant. An aide to Board President Aaron Peskinsays he still supports the plan to build a new power plant from scratch.

Until a few months ago, San Francisco seemed ready to go to market with its COPs and to build a natural gas-powered power plant to replace the heavily polluting diesel-fired Mirant Potrero plant in a largely African-American corner of the city.

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell - whose district includes both the proposed and existing power plants - supported the new natural gas-fueled plant as the lesser of two evils. Some on the city's far left pushed for the new plant because it would get the city deeper into the power business, pushing out private utilities. But some environmentalists opposed the new plant because they said San Francisco shouldn't be burning fossil fuels and adding to global warming.

Mayor Newsom, who is considering a run for governor, initially sided with Maxwell and the new power plant, but after facing a mutiny by environmentalists he brokered a deal with utilities whereby the existing diesel power plant would be retrofitted as a temporary fix. He must now convince his Board of Supervisors.

As policymakers debate the issue, the city's heavily polluting, 30-year-old diesel plant continues to belch pollution at levels that everyone agrees are unacceptable.

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