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California finds backup power for offline San Onofre nuclear plant in Huntington Beach

California energy officials say they have found enough electricity to replace what they’ve lost with the shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

The nuclear plant, which sits on a coastal bluff on the border of Orange and San Diego counties, has been offline since January 31 — and will remain shut down through at least August, because of problems with excessive wear in tubes carrying radioactive water.

One of the key sources of replacement power is in Huntington Beach. The AES natural gas-fired power plant rises high above Pacific Coast Highway. It covers 38 acres of close-to-the-beach property — and its tall exhaust stacks and erector-set structure of metal tubes, pipes and concrete dominate the Huntington Beach coastal skyline.

You can’t hear the sound of power being produced until you get close to the AES power plant — close enough for ear protection. From the highway you can't hear the plant. But once on the property, the sounds completely erase the roar of the Pacific Ocean across PCH.

Since May, all four units at the natural gas-fired power plant have been revved up to crank out power.

“It’s essentially boiling water to create steam," said AES plant manager Wikko Wirta. "Steam drives a turbine, which drives a generator. That generator produces power. It goes into a step-up transformer and eventually is sent to the switchyard for Southern California Edison to distribute via the wires and poles to families' homes.”

Wirta said when the company got the word from the state that the two units were needed, workers jumped into action.

“We had initially planned on 30 days worth of work, but the people in Huntington Beach turned it around in 16 days,” said Wirta.

The two “retired units” were brought back to service May 14. During California’s energy crisis about 10 years ago they were also put back into service.

Wirta said the two units will operate at least until November, when they may be “re-retired.”

The two gas-fired units provide enough juice for 400,000 homes.

The plant is just one part of the mix to cover the loss of power generated by the San Onfore nuclear plant.

“It doesn’t completely fill the gap left by San Onofre, but it does significantly lower the risk of reliability issues," said Stephanie McCorkle with the California Independent System Operator (or CAL-ISO), which runs the state’s power grid.

McCorkle said an upgraded transmission line and a new one in San Diego County, the Sunrise Powerlink, also help.

“But we’re still going to need customers to do their part and conserve when they hear Flex-Alerts this summer," McCorkle said.

She said Flex-Alert messages would be broadcast on radio and TV if needed over the summer.

“State officials have called a Flex-Alert and are asking for everyone’s help," one message begins. "Please turn off all unneeded lights at home and at work. Adjust your AC to 78 degrees or higher."

McCorkle said Flex-Alerts are a key conservation step to prevent rotating outages.

“Not only is it good for the grid, but it’s also going to lower your utility bills, because that’s when wholesale power costs are the highest, when supply is the lowest," explained McCorkle. "You’re also helping out the planet, because conservation means those are megawatts that don’t have to be generated by our power plant, and if that power plant does have air emissions, then that’s added air pollution on some of the hottest days of the year.”

She said Flex-Alerts are issued before high demand might strain the electricity grid.

Southern California Edison said it can get through the power demands of a normal summer with the Huntington Beach gas-fired power plant, added transmission lines and conservation.

But Edison’s Jennifer Manfrè said emergencies or extreme summer heat could trigger rotating blackouts, which would mostly affect southern Orange and northern San Diego counties.