Why One California City Might Double Down on Natural Gas.

On Tuesday, Glendale could become the last California city to build a natural gas-fired power plant, enraging many residents and environmentalists who say Glendale should be investing in renewables rather than doubling down on fossil fuel. At issue is a $260 million project to help replace aging generation equipment at the city’s Grayson Power Plant. The project includes five new gas-fired generators, estimated to produce 93 megawatts, plus battery storage and distributed energy, for the city of 200,000. The gas-fired generators would be less polluting than the current units — and a significant walk back from the 262 MW of gas generation proposed in 2017. Sustained protests in 2018 and 2019 gave opponents of the project at least a temporary victory when the city agreed to pause plans for all gas generators and promised to search for greener, cheaper alternatives.

But on Feb. 15 the City Council voted 3-2 to move forward with everything in the Grayson Repowering Final Environmental Impact Report, including its plan to build the five gas generators, citing the need for surplus power in case of emergencies. It may not be a done deal, however, as the councilmembers agreed to discuss amending their decision at the March 1 meeting and possibly strip out the gas component. “The [Feb. 15] vote caught me by surprise,” said Byron Chan, an attorney with the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice. Earlier in the meeting, an amendment to move forward with the clean energy parts of the proposal but a pause on the five gas turbines until alternatives could be considered seemed certain to pass. “It was late and a lot was happening,” Chan said. “By the time (the council) voted, there was a lot of confusion on what was voted on.” Glendale Water & Power (GWP) has consistently pushed for gas generators. Its general manager, Mark Young, maintains that gas generation is needed to prevent blackouts and that renewable energy alone won’t be enough.

“We’ve been told continuously, wait, wait, wait,” Young said. “It would be a different story if the boilers could continue and [if] we didn’t have the AQMD [South Coast Air Quality Management District] regulations, maybe you could make that argument. But to tear down the power plant and not have a replacement plan and not get it done as soon as possible would be a dereliction of my duty.” Young added that the demand for electricity is expected to dramatically rise in the coming years with the increase in electric vehicles. “Our goal,” he said, “is reliable, affordable energy to the residents of Glendale.” One specific rationale for gas, according to Young, and noted in the EIR, is a technical, but crucial, a concept called N-1-1. “N” represents the city’s need for power and each “-1” represents a subsequent catastrophic loss of power generation. The EIR states that Glendale is legally required to cover its N-1-1 obligation and that it must commit to at least 148 MW of generation — a number that could increase depending on Grayson’s future configuration to avert power outages.

Earthjustice and other gas opponents counter that the council and residents are being gaslit by GWP, and that there’s no state or federal N-1-1 obligation. “GWP presents [N-1-1] like a legal obligation to build a power plant with that requirement,” Chan said. “They are making a policy choice into a legal obligation. The city could say, ‘We want a big power plant and we know it will hurt the environment.’ But that’s not how GWP is selling it and not how [the] City Council is understanding it.” After a follow-up query, Young did not provide a specific legal mandate for N-1-1. A city website states that N-1-1 requirements represent a contractual obligation for sharing power with LADWP, but not that they are a regulatory mandate.

Kate Unger, an environmental attorney and a member of the Glendale Environmental Coalition, which has long opposed the purchasing of gas generators, believes that GWP’s concerns are overblown. “We have advocated for [the] City Council to engage an independent clean energy consultant, and not just take [GWP’s] concerns at face value,” Unger said. In a community forum at the virtual Feb. 15 meeting, comments were overwhelmingly against gas generation. Last Friday, L.A. City Councilmembers Kevin de León, Mitch O’Farrell, and Nithya Raman submitted a letter urging Glendale to work with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to figure out a cheaper, cleaner option to meet their energy needs.

In the Feb. 15 meeting, Councilmember Daniel Brotman urged the council to explore partnerships with the city of L.A. for additional energy. The idea is an ideal solution, according to Morgan Goodman, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Los Angeles chapter. Goodman questioned why GWP is assuming it will have to go it alone for energy generation. In the EIR “They increased their peak load estimates from [the] previous EIR,” Goodwin said. “We don’t think they followed the correct methodology. They talk about the electrification of cars and homes. But (neighboring) Burbank has not increased peak load projections.”

The Grayson plan would decrease the plant’s capacity from 267 MW to 216 MW. Opponents of the gas generators say renewable energy should be enough to power their city, and that they can borrow energy from neighboring cities, like Burbank or Los Angeles, if there’s a crisis. They also say that if Glendale invests in natural gas now, it could have a white elephant in 2045. That’s when California’s 100% clean energy mandate kicks in. Young said that the gas generators could, at that point, be converted to run on hydrogen. But that’s an iffy proposition, and even Young conceded that 100% hydrogen has not been tested on the proposed gas-powered units.

Burning hydrogen in power plants is problematic, according to the Sierra Club because, while it does not produce carbon when combusted, it does emit nitrogen oxide, which has six times the global warming potential of emissions released by methane combustion. With a few more days to consider the amended proposal, the council could agree to move forward only with the clean energy option. Based on the Feb. 15 meeting, there appear to be two solid votes out of five for gas generation, Mayor Paula Devine and Councilmember Vrej Agajanian. Fossil fuel opponents are hopeful but bracing for the worst.

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