California Extends Use of Its Last 3 Gas-Powered Plants to Avoid Energy Crises

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California Extends Use of Its Last 3 Gas-Powered Plants to Avoid Energy Crises

The AES Corporation 495-megawatt Alamitos natural gas-fired power station stands in Long Beach, Calif., on Oct. 1, 2009. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

8/14/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

The California Energy Commission approved a plan Aug. 9 to extend the use of the state’s last three gas-powered generating stations along the southern coast for another three years to avoid running out of electricity during summer months.
As the state races to reach its accelerated goals to switch its power grid to renewable energy sources by 2045, commissioners agreed to recommend keeping the fossil-fuel sources for emergency situations.
“We need to move faster in incorporating renewable energy. We need to move faster at incorporating battery storage. We need to build out chargers faster,” Commissioner Patricia Monahan said. “We’re working with all the energy institutions to do that, but we are not there yet.”
Hot summer weather has stressed the state’s energy sources in the past few years, causing utilities to cut off electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes in 2020, and officials asking for voluntary cutbacks last year.
The state, though, is unlikely to run out of electricity this summer because of an increase in power storage and use of hydroelectric power plants, the California Energy Commission reported in May.
The plan to continue using the gas-powered plants still needs final approval from the State Water Resources Control Board, which may discuss the issue this week.
By keeping the three plants online, the state will be able to fire them up during emergencies, such as when sizzling summer heat waves threaten to overload the grid.
The AES Corporation 495-megawatt Alamitos natural gas-fired power station stands in Long Beach, Calif., on Oct. 1, 2009. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The AES Corporation 495-megawatt Alamitos natural gas-fired power station stands in Long Beach, Calif., on Oct. 1, 2009. (David McNew/Getty Images)

“The [emergency] reserve protects against those low-probability, but very high-impact events so that the lights stay on,” Delphine Hou, California Department of Water Resources director of statewide water and energy, told commissioners at the Aug. 9 meeting.
For the extensions, the state has budgeted $558 million for the Ormond Beach plant in Point Magu—about 40 miles north of Malibu; up to $529 million for Alamitos, which is located in Long Beach, and up to $106 million for Orange County’s Huntington Beach station, for a total of $1.2 billion, assuming all facilities reach targets and don’t incur any penalties, according to Ms. Hou.
The state planned to close the plants in 2020 but extended their use for three years.
This would be the second three-year extension and is expected to end in 2026.
Since 2009, the state’s number of gas-powered plants has dropped substantially from 19 to 3. Many of the plants were retired or shut down for other reasons, David Erne, deputy director of the Energy Assessments Division for the California Energy Commission, told commissioners Aug. 9.
The Alamitos Generating Station, with about 2,000 megawatts of capacity, was built in the 1950s. Half of the units have already been shut down. The other three units, pumping about 1,000 megawatts of power, were approved for the extension request.
The Huntington Beach Generating Station was built between 1958 and 1969. The plant has four units, but one has already been retired. Of the plant’s original five generation units, only one continues to operate and will be included in the state’s extension request. The Ormond Beach Generating Station has two units that generate about 1,500 megawatts of power, and both are included in the extension request.
The AES Corp. Huntington Beach power plant produces energy for southern California in Newport Beach, Calif., on May 9, 2002. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The AES Corp. Huntington Beach power plant produces energy for southern California in Newport Beach, Calif., on May 9, 2002. (David McNew/Getty Images)

One megawatt provides roughly enough electricity for 750 homes at one time, according to the California Independent System Operator—a nonprofit that oversees the operation of the state’s electric power system.
The three plants provided emergency energy during a heat wave last year.
On Sept. 6, 2022, the state’s independent system operator issued a Flex Alert as customer energy demands maxed out the state’s supply, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The electricity demand that day reached an all-time high of nearly 51,500 megawatts, prompting the three plants to activate, providing another 2,000 megawatts to the system.
California Energy Commission staff found that during the emergency operations, all plants were operating within the state’s health quality standards.
Mr. Erne, the energy commission deputy director, recommended the state continue to focus on supply and demand to ensure the state’s grid is reliable during summer months, when demand is at its highest.
California Independent System Operator announced a statewide electricity Flex Alert urging conservation to avoid blackouts in El Segundo, California on Aug. 31, 2022. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

California Independent System Operator announced a statewide electricity Flex Alert urging conservation to avoid blackouts in El Segundo, California on Aug. 31, 2022. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

“We need to proactively address these challenges now and going forward,” Mr. Erne said.
Siva Gunda, the commission’s vice-chair, said the energy grid needed to be reliable but also safe going forward.
“This is a multi-prong strategy to ensure we have reliability and affordability, but also be able to keep the public health safe,” Mr. Gunda said.
He also recommended the state prepare a strategy to end use of the gas plants by 2026, meaning no more extensions.

Groups Oppose the Move

The idea to keep the plants open was met with opposition from more than 50 environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, which wrote a letter to commissioners asking them to reject the plan.
“Our state cannot continue to depend on these malfunctioning and dangerous plants that pollute frontline communities,” the group wrote.
The gas plants are devastating for marine life and adjacent communities, the letter continued.
Others who spoke at the meeting agreed.
Lucia Marquez, associate policy director with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, an environmental justice organization, delivered to the commission over 1,000 signatures against the extension.
“Three years ago, in good faith, we did not oppose this extension,” Ms. Marquez told commissioners. “What guarantee does the community have that this will be the last extension?”
Roselyn Tobar, a Los Angeles resident and activist, told commissioners she had seen how fossil fuel generation has impacted her family and asked the commission to reject the proposal.
“A few years ago, my father was diagnosed with cancer, and his doctors linked it to its proximity to fossil fuel operations,” she said.
Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

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Jill McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist covering politics, environment, and statewide issues. She has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico. Jill was born in Yosemite National Park and enjoys the majestic outdoors, traveling, golfing, and hiking.

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