Southern California electricity provider NRG Energy announced that it will retire three natural gas-fired power plants across Southern California over the next 10 months. The announcement comes as California residents ramp up opposition to fossil fuel fired power plants as the state continues to make progress toward its bold renewable energy generation goals.
Natural gas-fired power plants have historically been located in disadvantaged communities, adding a further burden to those struggling the most in the state. California’s Clean Energy and Pollution Reductions Act of 2015, also known as SB 350, adds a mandate to the California Public Utility Commission’s charge to address these underserved, overburdened communities with any changes to the state’s energy mix.
The three power plants, located in Rancho Cucamonga (Etiwanda), Oxnard (Ormond Beach), and Goleta (Ellwood) are scheduled to close in the next 12 months. NRG Energy’s Etiwanda plant is scheduled to close on June 1st, the Ormond Beach facility will close on October 1st. The Ellwood natural gas-fired generating facility will officially end its run on January 1st, 2019.
The Sierra Club is celebrating the slew of closures coming in the next 12 months as key indicators of a transition to renewables that is well underway,
“Closing these plants is more proof that clean energy is driving gas out of California. As clean energy grows, our reliance on gas generation is falling quickly and we urge the California Independent System Operator to continue looking at innovative ways to replace these projects with clean energy solutions” Evan Gillespie, Campaign Manager for Sierra Club’s My Generation Campaign said. “Clean energy is the preferred option among Californians and in particular the communities most often forced into housing our country’s polluting power plants.”
The closures confirm that natural gas-fired electricity generation across the United States is on the decline after a massive ramp up over the last 15 years in a race to replace coal-fired electricity generation. The trend, as detailed in the NRDC chart below, shows the exciting trends with the decline in coal being the most notable, natural gas ramping up to replace the lost capacity, and renewables ramping up on a much longer ramp that is only recently starting to become a significant component of the mix.
California has deep roots in environmental activism and cut the path forward out of coal-fired electricity generation and into natural gas fired generation. The early transition leveraged existing fossil fuel technologies and assets and was supported by the increased utilization of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, to extract natural gas. Fracking is the process of drilling wells for oil and gas extraction, then strategically injecting a mixture of millions of gallons of water, sand, and largely unregulated chemicals at high pressures.
The high pressure injection is strategically performed to break up the subsurface structures that contain natural gas. After fracking, oil and natural gas are extracted to the surface. Injecting high pressure liquids into the earth with the intention of shattering subsurface geological structures might sound like a devious plot by a supervillain from a James Bond movie, but it took years before the process was linked to fracking. It’s funny how money changes how communities, companies, and courts think about cause and effect when billions of dollars are on the line…but I digress.
Gladys Limon, Executive Director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, sees the announced closures of natural gas-fired electricity generation plants as an opportunity,
“With this new development, we expect our public agencies and utilities to rise to the occasion and meet their responsibilities to both protect the public’s health and safety and ensure that environmental justice communities transition into the clean energy future. Decision makers must fully open the door for clean energy solutions that will bring local jobs and clean air to communities across California.”
While power plants are not typically installed in disadvantaged communities, as the cities they service continue to grow, more and more homes are built closer and closer to the facilities. Living in close proximity to power plants is not as lucrative as say, living on the beach in Malibu, so the homes are naturally more affordable, creating a double whammy of communities that are already economically disadvantaged being exposed to the highest concentrations of air pollution.
The California Public Utilities Commission has been charged specifically with addressing this, as it now has to take into account whether or not utilities’ electricity generating stations are located in disadvantaged communities when approving or renewing utility plant applications. The charge to address disadvantaged communities became a key factor in the CPUC’s decision making in the denial of NRG’s new Puente Power Plant, also located in the author’s current hometown of Oxnard, California. The Puente Power Plant was slated to be installed at the location of NRG’s Mandalay Generating Station in Oxnard, which is comprised of three separate generating units.
The Puente Power Plant upgrade was an overhaul to NRG Energy’s Mandalay generating station which otherwise would have required costly upgrades that made a complete replacement a more attractive alternative. With the Puente project cancelled, NRG instead opted to shutter the three generating stations at the Mandalay facility at the end of 2017, marking an end to operations at the controversial beachfront facility.
There are no signs of the transition off of fossil fuels slowing with the CPUC seeking changes to the energy mix across the state. It issued a draft resolution proposing central California utility PG&E replace three power plants with clean energy alternatives in December 2017.
California regulators set a further standard for the state in a December press release when they stated that any potential needs the natural gas plants provide could be met with clean energy and grid-scale batteries like the Tesla Powerpack or BYD’s containerized energy storage solutions.
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