Power Struggle

To build, or not to build? That is the question simmering over plans to build a new power plant in Redondo Beach. Or is it?

The proposal by AES to rebuild the Redondo Beach Power Plant is one that is literally and figuratively explosive. With a highly complex matrix of political opinion, legalities, regulatory commission rulings, scientific data and medical research, the questions surrounding its imminent future remain both daunting and frustrating.  The political innuendo and public relations pounding from every side have left many South Bay residents confused and exhausted. And given that much of the data won’t be released for some time, it appears the battle will continue to unfold for a while. The ramifications are tremendous for either outcome, and it has the potential to affect every resident of California—not just those of the South Bay. 

To better understand the origins of the conflict, you need to begin with a deadline projected eight years in the future.
Under Governor Schwarzenegger, the California Clean Energy Future Program required that ocean water-cooling systems be phased out in the state by 2020. The Redondo Power Plant, which uses seawater to cool the turbines and then releases the water back into the ocean with residual toxins, does not meet those new requirements. Thus, either AES must build a new plant to comply with this mandate or retire the site permanently.

The city of Redondo Beach now must decide to either allow another power plant saddled with visual blight and medical risk or to accept it and move ahead with the best compromise with AES. There are risks on both sides of the equation.

If the plant is not built, the overall California power grid could be compromised, making rolling blackouts a potential reality. If the plant is built, there are hazards to the health of residents in one of the most densely populated areas of the South Bay region. Highly toxic particulate emissions can cause asthma, coronary disease and cancer.

An industrial site since the late 19th century, the aesthetic implications of the land have been a contentious issue for some time. SoCal Edison built the plant in 1948. AES acquired the land 50 years later.

The current power plant sits on 53 prime acres above a filled-in salt marsh and near the Redondo pier and King Harbor—one of the more highly populated regions of the Southern California coastline. The behemoth plant is capable of producing 1,310 megawatts of power at full capacity, and the current permit allows it to run at full capacity 100% of the time.

According to AES project manager Jennifer Didlo, “The current plant operates at full capacity (1,310 MW) about 5% of the time, but it operates at some capacity about 45% of the time.” That number varies due to the energy needed for the overall grid, because energy is produced in specific places, but it goes back to the grid and is then sent to the areas in need.

Ms. Didlo concedes, “We agree that it only runs at full capacity 5% of the time, but when the grid needs power, it must run.” She goes on to note, “The more a new power plant runs, the less an old power plant runs.” When asked to confirm that the proposed Redondo plant would operate more frequently, she replies, ”AES has no control over when the plant operates. That’s determined by what the grid needs, and we don’t control that.”

he proposed Redondo plant would include significant changes from the existing one. The new plant would operate at 500 MW of power at full capacity, and it would operate at increased efficiency, thereby producing fewer toxic particulates into the air.

“We feel that we can operate the new plant at full capacity 25% of the time and produce the same particulates we produce from the current plant that operates at full capacity 5% of the time.”

In other words, as long as the new plant does not exceed operating at full capacity 25% of the time, toxic particulate emissions would remain the same. However, any overage would constitute an increase in particulate emissions. Additionally, that constitutes an increase in noise pollution by 20% of the time.

Physically, the new plant would take up approximately 12 acres, reducing the current footprint by 75%. AES proposes that the remainder of the land be determined mixed-use commercial and public park land.

The new plant would have three stacks reaching approximately 140 feet high instead of the current five stacks surpassing 200 feet. AES has proposed that the new plant be more aesthetically pleasing, so the visual blight would be minimal.

Adds Jennifer Didlo, “We don’t expect to get a license to operate at full capacity 100% of the time, but we expect to get one that permits us to operate at full capacity about 75% of the time.” The actual percentage that it will run at capacity will be determined by the overall grid need when it is built—not by AES in the application process.

And therein lies the argument proposed by the vocal opposition to the power plant: If the new power plant represents a reduction in physical size, megawatt power and particulate emissions but it receives a license to operate at full capacity up to 75% of the time—and AES has admitted that new power plants operate more frequently than old plants—then does it stand to reason that the proposed AES power plant would operate much more frequently at full capacity than the existing power plant and thereby produce more toxic air pollution and more noise pollution?

 

A PUBLIC REVOLT

Redondo city councilman Bill Brand and the grassroots organization nopowerplant.com, which he founded with Jim Light, lead opposition to the new plant. Additionally, the Sierra Club and Congresswoman Janice Hahn have weighed in with recommendations to support that Redondo and AES retire the Redondo facility and find another solution.

Citing the plant’s undesirable physical presence and an increase in noise pollution, the opposition also vehemently opposes the power plant due to public health concerns. A power plant has the capacity to produce significantly elevated levels of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide—toxins known to cause asthma, coronary disease and cancer.

Bill Brand states, “The proposed plant is going to run more frequently and produce the same dirty air. Because of their projected run rates, the pollution will increase over 600% from stacks built closer to the ground. That’s more than twice the auto emissions from the PCH.”  
Jennifer Didlo responds, “Our best modeling for Redondo is the Huntington Beach site, and it operates at 3% to 5% of the federal and state standards. The proposed Redondo plant would be half the size of the Huntington Beach site.”

But Bill Brand and his supporters are not convinced. “California does not need another power plant,” he says. “With three new plants firing up in 2013 in El Segundo, Walnut Creek and Sentinel Valley—for a total of 1,800 MW—the needs are met.”  

Regarding the need for the proposed Redondo power plant, California Independent System Operator spokesman Steven Greenlee says, “Chapter three of our 2011/12 Transmission Plan and our testimony at the Long Term Procurement Proceeding at the California Public Utilities Commission show that if about 2,400 MW of generation in other locations, like Alamitos and Huntington Beach, is repowered, then we may not need Redondo Beach. However, as of this time, there are no firm plans to repower any of those plants.” In other words, they reserve the right to remain fluid in their decision.

As a means to defeat AES, the opposition has introduced an initiative that would permit rezoning of the land on which the plant sits. The initiative proposes that the land be zoned to commercial use and as a “coastal preserve” so no power plant could ever occupy the land. The initiative needs the signatures of at least 15% of registered voters in Redondo Beach in order to put the question on the March 2013 ballot. Bill Brand states, “Holding a public vote sends a message to the California Engery Commission (CEC), because it’s very rare that they override the residents of an area.”

But even that initiative raised a red flag. “The commission has no authority/jurisdiction over zoning and land use designations,” says Sandy Louey at the CEC. “The commission cannot approve a project unless it is consistent with all applicable laws, ordinances, regulations and standards. If there is an inconsistency, the commission must meet with the local agency to attempt to resolve the inconsistency; however, the commission can override the inconsistency by making finds of public need and necessity.”

As of early September, she noted that the CEC has not made a formal comment on the Redondo site and would not start the review process until an application has been made. As of the publication of this article, the AES has not filed an application.

While the CEC does not have formal jurisdiction, if it feels that there is a particular need for a power plant, the commission can override the zoning of a particular area. In other words, they hold the cards.

 

DEBATES AND DEADLINES

On the local government level, the Redondo city council remains seriously divided on the subject. Evidence from the CEC, CAISO and various independent studies reveal extraordinarily detailed information across a wide body of reports. However, parties involved in this debate frequently reduce massive reports to small applicable sound bites that leave citizens grasping for context and further details.

Redondo Mayor Mike Gin and the Redondo city council have had highly contentious meetings about the proposed power plant. In May 2012, Mayor Gin shot down the opportunity for Redondo residents to vote on the proposed power plant.

“We did not have the $100,000 budgeted that it would have cost to add it to the 2012 presidential ballot, and because it would have been an advisory vote rather than a voice of law,” Mayor Gin says. “If all of us had a choice, we would not have a power plant in Redondo Beach; however, AES owns the land, and we cannot rezone it, so it must be retired or rebuilt by 2020 to comply with state mandates. Proposals with what to do with the land vary wildly. Councilman Steve Diels believes “we need to work with AES to get them off the land so that we can drill for oil on the site.” Studies from the mid-20th century lead him to believe that there is enough oil beneath the power plant to pay AES hundreds of millions of dollars to vacate. His position is that “our strongest position is to work with AES to find a solution, and that solution is to buy them out of their land.”

“We have publicly stated that the land will be for sale at some point,” says Dildo. “However, we don’t have the internal resources at this time to determine that value, and it’s distracting.” In short, AES is not interested in selling right now—and certainly not enough to pull valuable resources from other projects to determine the value.

Bill Brand is quick to eliminate Councilman Diels from the debate since Diels accepted a campaign contribution from AES “around 2004, before this debate was raging,” says Mr. Deils.

The process ahead is laborious and filled with hurdles for all involved parties. AES plans to submit an application to the CEC “sometime in late September,” said Ms. Didlo.

The application will contain all proposed details of the plant, including the percentage of time the plant will operate at full capacity and the proposed toxic particulate emissions, which AES will determine. The entire report will be available to the public.

In the meantime, the opposition plans to proceed with the initiative to get a vote on the March 2013 ballot to rezone the land. However, securing enough signatures does not ensure that it can be on the March ballot. The signatures will have to be officially counted, and that can take weeks beyond the March ballot opportunity.

Alternately, the opposition could rely on an officially suggested percentage signature rate, but that means they could fall short with the number required. Both options involve risk.

While the Redondo city council is split on both the issue and the initiative, there isn’t even agreement on what would happen if AES is not awarded a contract. AES and Mayor Gin agree that AES is under no obligation to do anything and that AES could sit on the land with a defunct power plant blocking the view and letting it rust in the ocean air. Bill Brand contends that the city council “could invoke the squatter’s law and kick them off at their own expense.”

There is only one thing about which the city council agrees at this time: The city will conduct an independent study of proposed particulate emissions, and that data will be made public and submitted to the CEC for consideration in the application process.
So back to the question: “To build or not to build?”

Or is the real question: “Can the Redondo city council and the residents of Redondo work together, and with AES, to achieve an acceptable solution for a positive outcome for all California residents?”

This is a highly emotionally charged decision filled with stacks of scientific data, medical findings and public relations spin encapsulated into constantly quarrelsome political debates. Sadly, some of the most useful data won’t be available until 2020, when then the new plant requirements kick in.

With the city council of Redondo deeply divided, there is no united front on which to meet AES in discussions and proposals. In fact, the longer the Redondo community stays polarized—or even disengaged, the more power AES holds.