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Grand Gestures, Hot Air and Cold Water

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Who says that the issue of global warming is a matter of science, not faith? Just last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom proved belief trumps data. The Chronicle reported that a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission study found that the giant turbines he wanted to put underwater below the Golden Gate Bridge would cost way too much money to install and maintain. They would generate power at a cost of 80 cents to $1.40 per kilowatt hour -- as opposed to Pacific Gas and Electric's 12 cents per hour commercial rate. It seems the turbines would produce only one or two megawatts of power -- not the 38 megawatts Newsom envisioned.


Newsom was unfazed. "I don't care about the arguments against it. I care about the arguments for it," Newsom told Chronicle reporter Cecilia Vega.

And: "It's a question of your subjectivity. If you're opposed to (the idea of tidal power) or want to oppose it, you're going to find reasons not to do it. If you're for it and you believe it's something that should be done and can be done, then you're going to find a way to make it happen."

Or to paraphrase Genesis, The Mayor saith: Let there be turbine light, and there was turbine light. And the Mayor saw that the turbine light was good. Forget the debate -- and there still is a debate -- about whether global warming is caused by man or other factors. Everyone can agree that projects that improve energy efficiency and reduce polluting greenhouse gases are good for national security and America's health.

Then why are the biggest global warming believers more interested in their good intentions than they are in achieving results?

In February, the San Jose Mercury News reported on how the Valley Transportation Authority found that the VTA's three zero-emission buses (ZEBs) cost $51.66 per mile to fuel, maintain and operate -- compared to $1.61 per mile for a diesel bus.

No worries. The California Air Resources Board wants to expand ZEBs. CARB regulations mandate that by 2012, 15 percent of buses purchased by larger transit agencies will be ZEBs.

Which makes no sense when transit agencies can purchase hybrid buses -- which reduce foul bus emissions at a fraction of the ZEB cost. VTA General Manager Michael Burns told me that he's not anti-ZEB, but until the technology improves and the price tag decreases, "hybrids would be a better investment." He guess-timated that the VTA could buy six hybrids for the cost of one ZEB -- and the hybrids would do more for air quality today.


"Let's focus on trying to do what we can to not only achieve the long-term goals, but also in the shorter term, to be able to do things that improve air quality," Burns said.

The VTA project has been so expensive, CARB's Gennet Paauwe explained, because it is a demonstration project. When there are more ZEBs, the cost will go down. What about the CARB claim that the next generation of ZEBs will be cheaper to operate than today's diesel buses? She referred me to AC Transit. AC Transit's Clarence Johnson told me the agency will be paying $1.63 per mile more for ZEBs than diesel buses -- and that doesn't include maintenance costs, which will be picked up by project partners.

In the land of Green Giants, money is no object. Despite a projected $233 million deficit next year, Newsom has 25 staffers working on global-warming issues in various agencies.

If Newsom wants to curb carbon emissions, he could stop jetting around the globe, limit city employee travel and turn down the bright lights. Or better yet, as former supporter Wade Randlett told The Chronicle, Newsom could fix Muni so that more San Franciscans want to use public transit.

But fixing Muni won't win Newsom a starring role on the green stage. What will turn heads more at the Davos Economic Forum -- improving public transit or trumpeting that Newsom and his small army are riding the wave of water power? Heeding the PUC study isn't going to get Newsom in a photo next to Virgin's Richard Branson.

This is typical: Plan Newsom proposes that when city staffers fly, their offices pay into a "carbon offset" fund that is supposed to reduce greenhouse gases elsewhere. They pollute, then use tax money to help someone else to pollute less.


"The loudest, noisiest, bossiest people in this debate have shown no interest in leading by example," noted global-warming skeptic Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "It's about other people making sacrifices." And other people paying for it.

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