To block blackouts, CA should delay local power plant closures

The power plant in El Segundo, Calif. (Photo: Don Solomon, via Shutterstock)

As temperatures soared and wildfires burned across the Southland, California electricity customers recently experienced rolling blackouts for the first time since 2001. Although investigations continue, it appears that there just weren’t enough energy resources available to meet customer demand.

The heatwave exposed the continued volatility of the state’s electricity grid, and the need for California to ensure a safe, reliable supply of energy as we continue to transition to a cleaner energy future.

State regulators can take an immediate step to stop rolling blackouts by delaying plans to close down local power plants

The rolling blackouts were necessary due to extreme heat, the loss of a 470 MW power plant, the drop in solar generation occurring after sunset, and lower wind generation than expected.  This forced the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which runs the state’s electricity grid, to direct the curtailment of service to customers in order to prevent more widespread blackouts that are avoidable. 

With high temperatures likely to continue this summer, Californians may face additional rolling blackouts throughout the state.

As the CAISO and utilities scramble to find additional energy resources to keep the lights on, state regulators can take an immediate step to stop rolling blackouts by delaying plans to close down local power plants that provide power to customers during these peak demand periods. 

On Sept. 1, California’s Water Resources Board will consider regulatory actions that would potentially result in the permanent retirement of four power plants that utilize ocean water for cooling, referred to as Once-Through Cooling (“OTC”).

The recent blackouts illustrate why all four should receive three-year extensions from the State Water Resources Control Board (“Water Board”) to allow the continued use of OTC through 2023 and prevent the early retirement of these power plants.  The State must make policy decisions that protect the health and safety of Californians. These critical energy resources serve as an insurance policy to keep the lights on in California as we transition to cleaner sources of electricity while still maintaining compliance with the original OTC policy goals. 

For example, the 850 MW Redondo Beach Generation Station, which is slated to close at the end of this year, can serve approximately 1 million households when all three units are operating at maximum capacity.  This plant only operates during peak demand periods when additional electricity is needed – about 3% to 5% of its capacity so its environmental impact is minimal. 

Although it operates infrequently, it is critically important to maintain electricity reliability and reduce or eliminate rolling blackouts when temperatures soar, or wildfires threaten the transmission system.  As of Aug. 18, Water Board staff is only recommending a one year extension to this facility while acknowledging that “Starting in the summer of 2021, additional power likely will be needed for peak usage on hot days through 2023.”

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti is also proposing to scrap four plants in the Los Angeles Basin that may be critical to resiliency and reliability during severe weather events and wildfires.  During the October 2019 Saddle Ridge fire, these four plants kept the lights on in Los Angeles when flames driven by 60-mile-per-hour winds forced closure of at least six major high voltage transmission lines which import electricity from outside the region.

Sadly, California’s energy regulators have been slow to recognize growing trends concerning the impacts of climate and wildfires on grid reliability and the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A May 2020 letter from California’s energy agencies to the State Water Resources Control Board concerning the closing of the OTC plants states that “the CAISO analysis did not consider the impact of drought, climate change, increased competition for imports … or risk to transmission due to wildfires.”

The analysis also noted greater uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as millions of Californians stay home to work, and children log on to school for remote learning. This is changing our demand for electricity, adding additional risk and uncertainty for our grid.

Quite simply, this is not the time to be undermining the reliability and stability of California’s electrical grid.

Fortunately, there is still time for California regulators to change course and extend operations of all four OTC plants through at least 2023.  Given that the state has already met its goals under the OTC Policy, extending operation of these plants will not harm the environment and will keep in service power plants that can serve approximately 4 million households.   

Ordering the closing of these plants is taking unnecessary risks with our electrical grid, and the millions of Californians who need reliable power.  As climate change drives our temperatures higher and threatens our state with another drought and dangerous wildfire season, we need reliable sources of power to ensure the safety and well-being of all Californians.

Editor’s Note: Brian D’Arcy is business manager for IBEW Local 18.

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