HAYWARD — In exchange for hosting two new gas-burning power plants, Hayward residents could be treated to a gift certificate.

Want to replace your old fireplace or wood stove? The power plant companies will do it for you, or at least pay a portion of what can be an expensive upgrade.

But what if nobody wants a fireplace retrofit? Susie Khaleeli doesn't want two big power plants near her residence, and she doesn't want to sacrifice her fireplace, either.

"What they're saying to us is these plants are going to be polluting — they're going to be polluting over the standards," Khaleeli said. "That's a given. So to counteract their pollution, we are asked to not use our fireplace. That's what it boils down to. And it just doesn't seem right."

No one is mandated to give up a cozy fireplace so that the 600-megawatt Russell City Energy Center and the 115-megawatt Eastshore Energy Center can be built in west Hayward, supplying Pacific Gas & Electric Co. with power to feed the Bay Area's electricity demand.

But the idea that hundreds of area households would be willing to stop burning wood at home, then take advantage of a discount program to switch to cleaner heating systems, is assumed as part of the pollution mitigation plans that could allow one or both Hayward plants to go forward.

"The objective is to offset particulate matter emissions," said Mike Argentine, who is managing the Russell City project for San Jose-based Calpine Corp. "The idea is we are going to mitigate up to 43 tons with the fireplace retrofit program."

Calpine's plan is to offer Hayward residents a $400 discount for a fireplace retrofit or a $700 discount for a wood stove replacement. If not enough Haywardites raise their hands within a year's time, the company will expand the offer to any Alameda County household west of the East Bay hills.

And if that doesn't work, Calpine will move on to a more traditional form of pollution trading, or buying already banked emission credits to reduce pollution elsewhere.

"If the program's not effective, obviously we have to supply emission-reduction credits," Argentine said. "There's no other choice. If we want to build this project, we have to do it."

The California Energy Commission is in the final stages of reviewing Calpine's project. It is also reviewing a similar fireplace retrofit program proposed by Colorado-based Tierra Energy, which wants to build the smaller Eastshore plant about a half-mile from the Russell City plant.

But energy commission staff and two of the commission's five board members already have expressed tacit support for the fireplace retrofit program as an important condition of the projects' approval.

The commission has scheduled a Sept. 12 hearing to vote on whether it will certify the Russell City plant, while a final decision on the Eastshore plant is also expected this year.

"It's fairly nebulous at this point in terms of how the (retrofit) program would be administered," said commission spokesman Bob Aldridge.

Even if the plants are approved by the commission, he said, it would most likely be the responsibility of another agency, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, to oversee how the fireplace program works.

Air district officials point out that nearly 2 million fireplaces and wood stoves throughout the nine-county Bay Area release a significant amount of fine particulate matter and other pollutants into the region's wintertime air, contributing to health problems.

The two gas-fired Hayward power plants would also be releasing a heavy dose of particulate matter — dozens of pounds per hour of the airborne pollutant, amounting to up to 150 tons per year if both plants are operating at maximum capacities, according to information culled from energy commission reports.

In comparison, the worst residential fireplaces can emit up to 60 grams per hour of fine particulates, and old wood stoves can emit up to 18 grams per hour, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

When many homeowners use them, those grams can quickly add up, said air district spokeswoman Karen Schkolnick.

"It's significant how much an older, dirtier fireplace will put out," she said. 

In the Santa Clara Valley, where the air district implemented a fireplace retrofit program several years ago to mitigate a new power plant, wood smoke was contributing to an estimated 44 percent of the total amount of air pollution coming from fine particles of less than 2.5 microns in diameter, Schkolnick said.

Those tiny particulates are particularly dangerous pollutants because the human body can't just cough or blow them out of the nose.

"Because of its size, it's able to travel deeply in the lungs and cross into the blood vessels," she said.

Khaleeli, who lives near Chabot College, said she recognizes the environmental impact of her fireplace. But she uses it less than a dozen times a year and wants to keep doing so.

"And I use my heater and my furnace less days than that," she said.

Another local resident and power plant opponent, Joanne Gardiner, said few are going to want to give up on fireplaces because it devalues their home and takes away "that real rootsy, homey feeling that all of us crave for at one time or another."

According to energy commission documents, each resident participating in the rebate would have to prove that they have replaced their wood stove or fireplace with a natural gas-fired unit. Or, they could permanently plug up and shut down the home's fireplace or chimney and use the money toward improving central heating or air conditioning.

"I don't believe there are homeowners in Hayward or any other community that would be willing to spend $3,000 out of their pocket to do this," said Gardiner, a local Realtor who suspects replacements will cost far more than the value of the discount. "That's like chopping off a significant attraction to a home. It's like the difference between a house with one bathroom and two."

Gardiner said she believes the power plant companies should be finding other methods to lessen their environmental impact, or not build them in Hayward at all.

She points out that energy commission staff scientists, without making any requirements, recommended that Calpine could reduce Russell City's particulate emissions if it redesigned the power plant to incorporate a cleaner cool-start mechanism.

Asked about the technology mentioned in the commission report, Argentine said it "would require a major, major redesign" and is also not a proven technology. In contrast, replacing fireplaces has a demonstrable result in reducing pollution, he argued.

Matt O'Brien can be reached at 510-293-2473 or mattobrien@dailyreviewonline.com.