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14 November 2019

California takes backward step, by extending life of Gas turbines

A ruling this week from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) just goes to show how entrenched gas is in the US, and how tough it is to surge ahead in renewables.

The board has offered to endorse a 3.3 GW acquisition of fresh clean energy by the end of 2023, but is phrasing it as the reply to a perceived shortfall of local energy beginning in 2021 – in essence the concession to renewables is being used as an excuse to extend the life of a number of CCGT gas turbines, including a couple more from outside the procurement area, which import energy to California, to the extent of just under 5 GW.

These extensions are being sold as necessary to prevent the state running out of electricity. Critics from renewable organizations and environmental protection agencies say there is fat chance of the region running out of energy by 2021 and that the rules have been bent – a one hour prime time has been restated as a 4 hour prime time for instance – just to save as much gas power as possible.

The state itself, in the form of the Governor’s office and the state legislature, have signed off on a plan in 2018, to see California through to zero emissions by 2045. The CPUC has notionally agreed with this, and committed itself to the same plan, but appears to be wriggling out of it.

Its role is to regulate investor-owned electric and gas utilities in California, including Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric. It is these investor owned utilities which provide the pushback against renewables in favor of mostly gas services and it is for these that the CPUC has come up with a plan to extend some existing gas turbines beyond their useful life.

These include the Alamitos plant, to be extended for up to 3 years, which outputs 1,200 MW; Huntington Beach for up to 3 years which only outputs 200 MW, but crucially it also includes Redondo Beach for another couple of years which provides 850 MW of CCGT capacity. A replacement has already been commissioned, which locals are up in arms about, and want to see closed. The City of Redondo Beach has plans to buy the land it sits on and return it to wetlands in 2020.

There will also be a one year extension on the Ormond Beach CCGT with 1,500 MW of capacity, and Moss Landing a 1,020 MW gas plant, which has just agreed to add battery to its facility. Additionally the Sutter plant in Yuba City, and the Inland Empire gas turbine would be partially allocated to import electricity to the region, further crowding out renewables.

One of the critical issues that will have to be got over first, before any of this can go ahead is that the State Water Resources Control

Board (Water Board) which the CPUC specifically does NOT control, has been asked to extend the use of what is referred to as Once Through Cooling (OTC).

This is a massively wasteful process whereby gas and nuclear plants take onboard water, and use it in a single pass through the plant to cool the process and then pass it directly to waste. In more modern plants the water is used multiple times and the chance of water contamination is far lower, as is the effect on the local eco-system which relies on the water supply. Which is why all such plants need to be closed by 2020.

Effectively these plants are all scheduled to be closed quite simply because they are the last of a dying breed, and need to be closed, and a number of players such as Vote Solar, are looking to try to appeal the decision. It is dressed up to look like it is simply a delay to closure, but given that some of these plants already have replacements in the process of being built, it is simply a way to defy the state government and block renewables.

Of course the Water Board may simply say no to offering an OTC extension, so lobbying is being aimed there in the first instance.

The reason for all of this was a fear that there would be electricity reliability issues which was raised about a year ago and the right answer is perhaps to commission more battery with solar, not battery plus gas.

In the meantime solar on rooftops and home batteries are still being kept out of most Californian energy markets by the California Energy Commission, and recently the Sacramento Municipal Utility District has proposed to open its markets for utility solar, but not roof top solar, despite the State Government bringing in rules that says you cannot build a new home without adding rooftop solar – but it looks like it cannot be used to help with the shortfall.

Could it be that momentum in California’s quest for zero emissions is slowing, as it gets blocked at every turn. Meanwhile Southern California Edison is making the claim that the shortfall in system resource adequacy is actually far higher perhaps as much as 5,500 MW, which means it will be asking for more polluting gas turbines to have their lives extended.