Crunch Time For Renewable Energy In SoCal

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[Correction: CleanTechnica reader Phil Dennison contacted us to say the Grayson generating plant has always been powered by natural gas and the proposed upgrade is for a more modern version of natural gas power generation.

The objections of renewable energy advocates remain just as valid, however. The upgraded plant would produce more total carbon emissions than the existing facility, whereas renewables would reduce carbon emissions substantially.

We regret the error in the original article.]

In 1939, the city of Glendale, California, located north of Los Angeles between Burbank and Pasadena, built a municipal generating plant in order to assure the residents of the city that they would always have a access to reliable electrical power produced locally. The Hoover Dam had recently been completed, bringing cheap hydroelectric power to the burgeoning American west, but Glendale felt having a source of electricity directly under its control would be best in the long run.

Grayson power plant and renewable energy
Grayson power plant. Credit: GWP

And what a long run it has been. After almost 80 years of burning coal to make steam to turn generators, the Grayson power plant is nearing the end of its useful life despite many extensive repairs and upgrades over the years. In 2014, the Glendale Water and Power authority started making plans to repower Grayson and switch from coal to natural gas. Those plans have been moving forward ever since, and in fact GWP has spent $12 million so far on the repowering plan.

So it was a surprise last week when the Glendale city council voted not to approve the repower proposal just yet, despite the fact that so much money has been spent on planning already and warnings that delaying the project by 6 months could add another $2 million to the total cost, projected to be $500 million.

Instead, the council voted to issue a request for proposals to renewable energy companies. They will have 90 days to come up with plans for how renewables could replace the output of the Grayson plant in a manner that is both reliable and cost effective. In other words, it is put up or shut up time for renewable energy advocates. What happens in Glendale could have far reaching consequences throughout the utility industry.

“Why build an oversized, fossil fuel power plant while the state is moving to 100% clean energy? The world is transitioning away from burning natural gas for energy,” Angela Johnson Meszaros, a staff attorney with EarthJustice, tells the Los Angeles Daily News. “This is a place for the clean energy sector to step up and show that they can do this. If they don’t, the city will approve this power plant and the takeaway will be that the clean energy solutions aren’t there.”

A reliable energy supply is a principal factor in the decision how to proceed, says Steve Zurn, GWP general manager, in a carefully worded staff report. The Grayson plant is not part of the California Independent System Operator system, which makes Glendale less able to rely on other power sources to keep the lights on, Zurn argues. Even though there is a glut of renewable energy available in some parts of California — excess electricity that has to be sold to system operators in other states — Glendale does not have access to that power. “Failure to take action to modernize the aging Grayson Power Plant creates risk for the City,” the GWP report to the city council says.

One of the issues local residents have on their minds is air pollution from the Grayson plant. Even though natural gas burns cleaner than coal, a repowered generating station would produce more electricity, so the total amount of local greenhouse gas emissions would rise rather than fall.

One of the alternatives under consideration is a solar power plant coupled to grid-scale battery storage. That was the recommendation made by the CAISO as an alternative to building the Puente natural gas facility in Oxnard, which is located west of Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast. GWP says that project and the situation in Glendale are substantially different because Oxnard has access to the larger grid whereas Glendale does not, according to GreenTech Media.

“The storage industry is ready to compete to serve the electric needs of Glendale,” says Alex Morris, director of policy and regulatory affairs at the California Energy Storage Alliance. “This competition is a good thing for Glendale residents and businesses since it can only help determine the least-cost, best-fit grid resources.”

In 90 days, the Glendale city council will meet again to consider its options. The decision it makes then could reverberate far beyond the Glendale city limits.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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