California officials agreed today to extend operations at three natural gas plants on the Southern California coast in an effort to shore up California’s straining power grid and avoid rolling blackouts.
The controversial and unanimous vote that keeps the plants open came from the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees the phaseout of natural gas facilities that suck in seawater and kill marine life.
Three plants in Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Oxnard will be kept in reserve for three more years to feed power into the state’s grid during power emergencies, such as the 10-day heatwave last August and September that led to statewide power alerts. The seawater cooling facilities In Long Beach and Huntington Beach had been slated to cease operations by the end of 2020, but received a three-year extension amid rolling blackouts last summer.
Now that extension has been extended again — through 2026. A fourth, the Scattergood Generating Station in Playa Del Rey, will receive a five-year extension to fill regional supply gaps though 2029.
Natural gas plants are a large source of greenhouse gases, which warm the planet, toxic gases like ammonia and formaldehyde, and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to Southern California’s extreme smog. Nationally, natural gas plants account for about a third of all carbon emissions from energy production.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom last year called for state agencies such as the Department of Water Resources to prop up the grid — including with fossil fuels, which drew the ire of environmentalists and nearby communities.
The state agreed to pay the plants’ operating companies about $1.2 billion from 2024 through the end of 2026 to stand by during energy events, such as heatwaves.
“These resources would only be turned on to address extreme events or for maintenance runs” at the direction of the state’s grid operator, said Delphine Hou, deputy director of the Department of Water Resources, at a meeting of the California Energy Commission last week.
The decision outraged many local residents, especially those in the largely Latino community of Oxnard, where many work outdoors in farm fields. The city supported the previous extension with the understanding that the plant’s owner would pay up to $25 million to demolish it.
After the vote, several angry people yelled at the water board members, “You failed our community.”
During the five-hour session that drew more than 60 people commenting, Kyle De La Torre, an Oxnard resident with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, urged the board to reject the extension. He said the smell is so strong that he gets a migraine when he passes the plant and worries about a school and homes nearby.
“When it comes to keeping the power plant, please don’t see us as just a number, or just a location on a map. We are humans just like you are. We deserve a safe and clear and clean environment just like you do,” he said.
Dave Shukla, co-founder of the Long Beach Alliance for Clean Energy, said he lives near the AES Alamitos plant. “I have wasted countless hours of my life over the past 25 years to cleaning up the dark soot that this plant emits directly onto our home,” he said.
Other parts of the Huntington Beach and Long Beach plants will use alternative cooling technologies, instead of seawater, so they are not subject to the new regulation adopted today. They have a 20-year contract to keep operating, according to AES.
Water board staff acknowledged that those living near the plants will continue to experience “air, noise, and aesthetic impacts.”
But Hou told the energy commission last week that because the plants won’t be operating on “a day-to-day basis like they are today, it’s very likely there’ll be a reduction in air emissions and once-through cooling water use,” which is the process of sucking in large volumes of seawater that kills fish and other marine life. The state policy phasing out the process dates back to 2010.
Mark Miller, AES’s general manager for facilities, including the Alamitos and Huntington Beach plants, said the the company “invests significant capital each year to ensure that our facilities are maintained at a state of readiness to safely serve local and system reliability needs” and that the plants’ contributions to pollution in the Los Angeles basin are “overwhelmingly dwarfed” by vehicles and other industries.
Eric Watts, chief commercial officer for GenOn, which owns and operates the Ormond Beach Generating Station in Oxnard, said the extensions “are necessary to protect grid reliability in the coming years.”
But whether the plants are capable of assisting the grid during extreme power events is controversial. During rolling blackouts in 2020, natural gas plants struggled in the heat, “resulting in power loss in combustion turbines, inlet air and cooling system stresses, steam tube leaks, and condenser pump failures,” the California Energy Commission reported.
In August 2022 “gas plants failed to perform at their expected capacity during the heatwave, while significantly increasing the pollution burden for local communities,” according to a report by a consulting firm commissioned by Regenerate California, a coalition of environmental organizations.
The findings call “into question the strategy of relying on gas generation as we experience more extreme weather, and as our understanding of its pollution and public health risks grows,” the report says.
The plants will be folded into a new state electricity reserve program, created by an energy deal that the Newsom administration and lawmakers cut last summer. Lawmakers called the deal “rushed” and “lousy” at the time, and environmentalists lambasted Newsom for leaning on fossil fuels as the state reels from one greenhouse gas-fueled disaster to another.
State Sen. Henry Stern, a Democrat from Calabasas, said he helped negotiate the deal yet apologized because fossil fuels are supposed to be a last resort.
“We keep head-faking communities and promising them just one more extension, just one more time — but actually, the economic structure we’re building here is designed to be a much more permanent reserve,” he said. “I’m hoping we can find a way to restore that trust. To say…is this the last time?”
Board chair Joaquin Esquivel expressed sympathy to those living near the plants and frustration with the position the water board had been put in. “I’ve heard a lot of common agreement around the need to decommission and move on from these plants. But…this board is not established to have the expertise to second guess all of our energy agencies” about the need to keep them open, he said.