Today Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Department of Water and Power announced that they will abandon plans to repower three large gas plants that provide power to Los Angeles. The power plants had come to symbolize the pace of change underway in the energy sector, the urgency of climate change, and the challenge of undoing a century of fossil fuel infrastructure. The announcement provides hope on our ability to arrest the worst impacts of climate change and sets a roadmap for utilities planning for 100 percent clean energy. In short, today was a moment of inspirational leadership by Eric Garcetti and LADWP— made possible by years of work by activists and utility staff alike.
Where to begin? In 2009, California passed critical legislation phasing out the practice, referred to as Once-Through-Cooling (OTC), of using ocean water to cool coastal power plants. The explanation is that power plants generate a lot of heat and need to cool off. For the better part of a century, abundant ocean water did the job, but at serious cost to the marine life harmed by the intake of water, and the release of hot water back into the ocean. A mix of technological advancements and political courage (really, the combination for many good things) led to the legislation that phased out this practice. In the subsequent decade, many power plants along the coast were either retired or rebuilt using new technology (dry-cooling towers).
The Sierra Club and allies challenged every single attempt to build new gas that arose during this period, each time making incremental progress: a little storage here, some energy efficiency there and so it went. For a while, it felt like we were losing, even though the incremental progress increased with each campaign. A San Diego gas plant had 100 MW knocked off it, replaced with clean energy. Southern California Edison implemented something called the preferred resource pilot, which proved that a utility could knit together solar, storage, demand response and efficiency into something of a small virtual power plant (at the time a couple hundred megawatts seemed enormous). Storage prices continued to fall.
Then, a breakthrough: in the fall of 2017, the California Energy Commission suspended efforts to build the Puente project in Oxnard, and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) ordered a new request for clean energy alternatives. Late in 2017, the CPUC ordered PG&E to replace 600 MW of reliability-must-run gas plants with clean energy. Bit by bit, over the span of five years, California figured out how to displace gas with clean.
The initial OTC law required utilities to cease ocean water cooling by 2020. Early efforts to block gas plants were hindered by a lack of track record with clean energy resources and a failure of imagination on the part of many. For a variety of reasons that were controversial and opposed by groups like the Sierra Club, LADWP received an extension for compliance with the OTC law. This delay of nearly a decade meant that while the other coast utilities in the state are mostly finished with compliance, LADWP is only about halfway done. As it worked out, the time lag allowed for clean energy technology to advance to the point that clean resources can fully replace these plants, and no repower would be needed.
That brings us to Los Angeles and LADWP. There is a really good article waiting to be written about what is going on at the utility right now— from their ongoing 100 Percent Clean Energy Advisory Committee to their own gas plant alternatives analysis. Goodness this blog post is going to be long enough and so this is not the place for it. But, I will just note that utility executives from around the country and world would do well to spend some time with General Manager David Wright and the staff at LADWP. The staff and Commissioners have done a tremendous amount of thinking and hard work to make today a reality. What they’re undertaking is daunting, hard, and inspiring.
Replacing these power plants will be hard. These power plants raise nearly every single engineering concern advocates have heard before: voltage support, frequency control, renewables integration, the duck curve, and the hardest of all in a transmission constrained region — local resource adequacy. But it is doable, and the utility is prepared.
Thanks to a partnership between the National Renewable Energy Lab, LA has spent the last two years developing various pathways to get to 100 percent clean energy (shout out to the architects of the 100 percent plan, Councilmembers Mike Bonin and Paul Krekorian). For the curious, you can catch up via this website, which includes all the presentations of the advisory committee we serve on for the project. You’ll see in those slides a city and utility that’s moved into the depths of planning for 100% clean energy. In many ways, it’s a perfect process for this Mayor. I’d wager my music collection that the Mayor knows more about climate change and clean energy solutions than any elected official in the country right now. So, it is no surprise a process to figure out how to get off fossil fuels would go deep and get wonky, and boy is this process delivering. I mean, check out these slides!
What are we looking at to replace these plants? A few hundred miles of new or expanded transmission lines, about 2 gigawatts of new storage and a couple gigawatts of clean energy, combined with demand response and energy efficiency. That’s on top of current utility commitments, which were a lot to begin with. Scenarios 11 & 12 in the slide below, presented at a recent 100 Percent Advisory Committee meeting provide the latest thinking. You can find the entire presentation on here.
Tomorrow, we’ll pivot to figuring out how to build all those projects out. For today though, we’ll celebrate our Mayor and LADWP, who deserve more than a few rounds of applause and the activists and leaders who elevated the issue for so long. The Mayor in particular is building a robust legacy for himself on climate, and in particular fracked gas. Recall it was Garcetti that led the charge to phase out CNG buses at Metro and now he’s phasing out gas plants (look out gas powered hot water heaters, I think you’re next). And of course, it’s impossible to talk about this moment without recognizing the leadership on the Energy, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice Committee at City Council, chaired by environmental justice leader Nury Martinez and long standing champion of all things green Paul Koretz. We’re blessed to live in a city shaped by their leadership.
Californians are fond of reminding folks that we’re the fifth-largest economy in the world. Since the 2016 election, our emphasis on this point has only grown as we try to strike a contrast in values and action from what’s happening in DC. With today’s announcement, Los Angeles is showing we can move beyond fossil fuels, and California stands on the brink of never building another fossil fuel power plant again (all eyes on you Glendale, you got this!). In a world of increasingly dire predictions about climate change, activists, utilities like LADWP, and Mayors like Eric Garcetti are showing us we can move beyond coal and gas to a clean energy future today. Onward!