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19 December 2019

California repeats plan for gas turbine, anywhere but here

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” would have been good advice back when the citizens of Troy came out to snap up a lovely little wooden horse the Greek militia had left for them, and such advice still stands today in the energy market.

We have just seen the end of a major IPCC meeting with little to no progress whatsoever and here we are a few days later reporting on a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) plant on the soil of Utah, explaining patiently that the gas turbine that it will build, is going to run on Hydrogen come 2045. We promise.

The turbine is being commissioned to replace the Intermountain Coal plant which is the largest Los Angeles facility which is based in Utah and sends energy to LA. It has to close by 2025.

Back in July we revealed plans to replace it with an $865 million natural gas plant, which immediately brought complaints from dozens of environmental groups and nearby councils. Despite California being dedicated to going 100% renewables by 2045.

It seems LA Mayor Eric Garcetti is happy taking the plaudits for cleaning up most power infrastructure inside his territory and he has placed orders for solar plus battery to replace a number of California based gas turbines, but when it comes to Utah, he seems to not care a jot.

The simple addition of “Oh this will be shifted to run hydrogen by 2045” looks like a public relations answer to a power problem, and GE has helped by assuring the State that its gas turbines can run on hydrogen unchanged. “Oh well then, that’s fine,” everyone is expected to say.

So why can’t Intermountain be replaced with climate-friendly power sources such as wind, solar and battery storage? After all the shut down is five years away.

The theory is, and it is just that, only theory, that natural gas generates less CO2 than coal when burned. This is demonstrably true at the time of burning, but more recent studies have begun to question extraction processes for gas, and pipeline services, and the amount of methane that escapes from these prior to the burning part of the cycle. It is likely that gas and coal are much of a muchness.

The idea is to run the turbine with perhaps 30% hydrogen on day one, from and 40% by 2031, and then reach 75% by 2040 and on to 100%. Or is it? We think the idea is to get it off the front pages of newspapers, and then forget about it and continue to use natural gas.

There’s nothing in the horse, it’s just a gift, said the Greeks, and of course LAWDWP will use hydrogen, if it becomes economic by 2045. Or not if it doesn’t. And Garcetti is using this logic to convince the mayors of local towns, Burbank and Glendale who are putting up some of the cash to build the gas plant and want to be sure it’s “green.”

The gas sell will be that the up front capex is cheaper, but of course if you have to buy gas for it for the next 25 years, and close it down early when it is not shifted to hydrogen, it will, in the end, be far more expensive than renewables. But most of that cash will come out of someone else’s budget, at some point in the future, so the focus is on the up front spend.

For a mayor that has talked up EVs, and getting California to zero-emissions by the mid-2030s, this is a dumb move.

This is being billed as the first hydrogen gas plant in the US, and the idea seems to be to use the wind farms and solar in Nevada and California to power electrolysis on water, to make the hydrogen. This is not being done anywhere else in the world yet, and only a handful of projects in Europe and Japan, are being planned right now, mostly in the transport region, not for the creation of electricity. For that, this process is probably too inefficient. So this is just a way of fooling all of the people, some of the time.

General Electric, which has pinned a large portion of its investment in natural gas in recent years, has said that converting natural gas turbines to hydrogen has more promise than carbon capture in allowing existing infrastructure investments to remain viable, but LADWP said it will also explore potential carbon capture applications to cut down on the plant’s emissions between 2025 and 2045. Both are likely to cost way too much, and will be put on ice leaving a gas turbine that will have to be closed to reach 100% renewables and leave a hole in someone’s budgets.