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Why gas-fired power plants are on the chopping block in SoCal

File: This photo taken on Dec. 11, 2017 shows a general view of a floating solar power plant in Huainan, a former coal-mining region, in China's eastern Anhui province.
AFP/Getty Images
File: This photo taken on Dec. 11, 2017 shows a general view of a floating solar power plant in Huainan, a former coal-mining region, in China's eastern Anhui province.

This month, three local power plants fueled by natural gas announced they were closing, and plans for a fourth have been scrapped. Collectively, they are victims of an energy glut and changing energy policies that are moving the state away from fossil fuels.

What plants are closing or not being built at all?

NRG Energy announced last week it would close three gas-fired power plants: The Etiwanda plant in Ranch Cucamonga, the Ormond Beach plant in Oxnard  and the Ellwood plant in Goleta. They were aging plants, built in the 1960s and '70s.

But plans for some new plants are also being sidelined. Last October, NRG asked the California Energy Commission to suspend processing its application to build another gas-fired plant, known as the Puente power project in Oxnard, shortly after two commissioners indicated they would recommend it be denied a permit.

Also last week, energy company Calpine suspended its application to build a new power plant in Oxnard, along the Santa Clara River. That had been opposed by the Wishtoyo Foundation, which represents the cultural assets of the Chumash tribe of Native Americans.  In its notice to the California Energy Commission suspending the application, attorneys for Calpine said Southern California Edison would not buy the plant’s power.

But, don't we need gas-fired power plants?

California's big utilities get about half their electricity from gas-fired power plants, so yes, gas remains a critical part of the state's energy diet, said UCLA Engineering professor Laurent Pilon. Natural gas is plentiful, and it is low cost. It's good at firing up power plants very rapidly, which is important when intermittent sources like solar and wind can quickly fall off.

But gas is a fossil fuel that California is trying to wean itself from in order to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The state has a goal for 30 percent of its power to be from renewable sources by 2020, and to generate half from renewables by 2030.

California still has a lot of gas-fired power plants. Hundreds were built in the state following the rolling blackouts of the early 2000s during a price manipulation scandal.

What is pulling Californians away from using gas plants?

While the state's supply of gas plants was ramping up, state and federal policies were changing to encourage the use of renewable sources of energy like wind and solar. Federal investment and tax incentives make the power competitive in price with natural gas, and state laws require utilities to buy at least some of their power from renewable sources.

Stanford researcher Dian Greuneich sat on the state Public Utilities Commission for several years pressing for renewable energy.

"If we're going to get really serious about climate change, the role of natural gas is going to decrease — and decrease significantly — in California over the next few decades," she said.

What's more — cities and counties are banding together into energy purchasing groups that are steering away from gas-powered plants in favor of renewables. It's a strategy called Community Choice Aggregation. In Los Angeles County, the county and dozens of cities created a power purchasing group called Clean Power Alliance that is expected to buy from renewable sources. The power would be transmitted to customers over Southern California Edison lines.

That’s making big utilities like Southern California Edison shy away from signing long-term contracts to buy electricity that comes from natural gas, Greuneich said.

Who's still building gas-fired power plants?

Glendale Water and Power is in the final stages of getting environmental approvals from the City Council for a new gas-fired plant that would replace two older units at the city's Grayson power plant that were built in the 1940s, said General Manager Steve Zurn.

It's a $500 million project, and a controversial one among residents who question the need to continue using fossil fuels to light and power Glendale, a city of 200,000 north of Los Angeles.

Glendale has only two transmission lines capable of importing electricity from renewable sources in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, Zurn said. If one or both of them were interrupted, the city utility would need to generate its own power. Those lines are used today to increase the portion of the city's power mix from renewable sources.

Zurn remembers the rolling blackouts of the early 2000s, when much of the state was at the mercy of power price manipulators. Glendale and other cities that have their own power utilities were mostly spared the problems that plagued customers who were getting their power from Southern California Edison and other investor-owned utilities in the state.

Zurn listed several other gas plants that are also in the construction and permitting pipeline in the greater Los Angeles area as proof that just because some older plants are going offline, there remains a need for them in other areas. Plants are moving forward in Los Alamitos, Huntington Beach, and Stanton.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has plans for at least one more big gas plant near El Segundo on the grounds of its existing Scattergood Power Plant. However, the city has put the plant on a back burner since June while it studies whether such a plant is still needed, given the growing capacity of solar and wind alternatives and the increasing capacity of batteries to store energy from it.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.