In summary

The state water board is considering a two-year extension for ocean-cooled power plants that are due to be shut down. Given the effects of the climate crisis, legislators should support it.

By Ron Miller, Special to CalMatters

Ron Miller is executive secretary at the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, rmiller@laocbuildingtrades.org

The plan to do everything necessary to maintain reliable supply to California’s power grid is facing a parochial assault by local politicians in coastal Los Angeles County. They are working against the recommendation of California’s energy regulators to ensure the smooth transition from legacy energy sources to renewables. They should consider the potential consequences of their efforts.

For two days last August, an extreme but predictable heat wave ravaged the state and drew more power from California’s electrical grid than it could supply. The result was rotating blackouts. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom directed the state agencies responsible for regulating California’s complex energy marketplace to assess the causes of the power outages and to recommend what must be done to ensure the failure does not occur again.

In January, leaders of the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Energy Commission and the California Independent System Operator responded to Newsom’s request by issuing a comprehensive Root Cause Analysis of the 2020 blackouts.

They found that three primary factors contributed to the power shortages: a climate change-induced heat wave; complex failure in day-ahead power procurement; and a failure in “resource adequacy” requirements, better understood simply as not having enough backup power sources ready to serve during that heat storm.

To help address the backup power failure, the California State Water Resources Control Board will consider a recommendation in October to extend for two years the availability of an ocean-cooled power plant in Redondo Beach. It was set to be retired because of state policy on phasing out ocean-cooled power plants.

But when Californians experienced blackouts last August, the Redondo Beach plant provided critical supply to support the grid, as it did again in June, when summer temperatures arrived early. 

The company that owns the plant is actively planning to divest from the property. Local politicians know this. Although the plant has been the target of complaints about noise and air pollution, those complaints often are embellished. Politicians should consider the short-term need of fellow Californians who do not have the luxury of the coastal living they enjoy and are much more reliant upon air conditioning and electricity to not only provide comfort but also safety from extreme heat. 

Although the state’s energy agencies are recommending that the water board extend operations for a few remaining ocean-cooled power plants, it is important to understand that the plants will mostly sit idle unless they are needed to support the grid in times of extreme high energy use. Other energy sources, such as solar, wind and battery storage, must be exhausted before these older, ocean-cooled power plants are called into service. This is exactly what happened during last year’s rolling blackouts, which would have been far more widespread if the legacy plants had not been available.

Californians should ask their state legislators to support system reliability and urge the water board to extend the ability of the Redondo Beach plant to stay in operation for two years. Legislators should resist the short-sighted provincial opponents to this recommendation. It’s not a step backward. It’s a sensible act to assure needed power for our state while we continue striding toward our energy future. 

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