LADWP is Replacing Local Power Plants…But with What?

Eric Montag, LADWP Senior Manager for Strategic Initiatives and Resource Management, speaks at Saturday’s Neighborhood Council DWP Oversight meeting.

Last year, the city put a lot of effort into deciding what to do about its aging power plant in Utah…and this year, power plant modernization is on the table again.  But this time around, three plants are in play.  One, the Scattergood Generating Station, is much closer to home – right next to LAX. 

So why should we care about power plants?

As always, one big issue for replacing any power plant is just how environmentally friendly to make the new plants…which is something that could affect Angelenos in surprising ways.  For instance, if we try to replace too many units at once, or use unproven technologies, expensive problems could pile up (which means higher bills and wasted money, or even power outages).  Or if we build a new fossil-fueled unit, we might have to shut it down less than 20 years after completion to meet the state’s clean energy timeline, which could also waste a lot of money.  And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room: climate change, which has been making extreme weather worse, even in California and Los Angeles.  Installing new fossil fueled generators would contribute to climate change, and explaining why we did that would be as hard as explaining why light rail doesn’t go to LAX.  So unless the community gets involved before the decision is made, we might all come down with a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

Luckily, city officials are trying to get the word out about the issues involved in this complex topic, and are seeking stakeholder input in the discussions.  For example, Saturday’s monthly Neighborhood Council DWP Oversight meeting included an informative presentation by Eric Montag, LADWP’s senior manager for strategic initiatives.

What’s being replaced, and why

According to Montag, the Scattergood Generating Station originally had 3 fossil fuel generators. Unit 3 was recently demolished and replaced with modern units which still use fossil fuels, but with 33% higher fuel efficiency.   But the remaining Units 1 and 2 are among the oldest in LADWP’s fleet.  Replacement has been considered urgent since at least 2010, and was made even more urgent by a 2010 state regulation prohibiting “once-through cooling” (a practice causing local ocean warming, known to harm undersea life). The deadline for replacing Units 1 and 2 is the end of 2024.  Likewise, two other power plants (Harbor and Haynes) have units that will need to be replaced by the end of 2029.

The original plan, interrupted

Originally, the plan was to simply install modern fossil fuel powered generators to replace Scattergood’s Units 1 and 2. But in 2016, the city asked the LADWP to study a 100% renewable energy target.  As a result, the replacement was put on hold in 2017, pending results of a study to see which units at which of the three power plants (Scattergood, Harbor and Haynes) can be replaced with renewable energy instead.  Draft results were presented to the LADWP board in October 2018, and they include 12 alternatives to the original plan, with varying amounts of renewables at varying costs.  Now the city has to decide among the many options.

You want it when?

But permitting and repowering a power plant can take years.  The end of 2024 sounds far off, but LADWP has to get started this year if it wants to meet that deadline.  A final decision on the first plant to be repowered could happen as soon as the April DWP board meeting (just three months from now).

Getting power to where it’s needed can be hard

One key factor to consider when choosing between the alternatives is how to get renewable power to where it’s needed.  LADWP’s large sources of renewable energy are all located far away.  Using them to replace local generation could require new transmission lines…and that’s a tall order.  New lines tend to take about ten years to get approved and built.  That’s not a problem for Harbor and Haynes, which don’t have to be ready for 11 years.  But any replacement plan for Scattergood that involves significant new transmission lines is likely to run afoul of the 2024 state deadline.

Storing power ain’t easy either

Another key factor in the replacement decision is how to get renewable power when it’s needed.  Fossil fuel power plants can generally be fired up any time you need power.  But renewable energy (such as wind or solar) is more fickle.  If you want to use solar energy at night, you have to store it.  LADWP already does this very well at Lake Castaic, where they pump water uphill when electricity is plentiful, and then let it flow downhill – generating new power – when it’s needed.  The utility also does this in a limited way at all of its hydroelectric dams, which release water when electricity is scarce.  These are essential resources…but they’re far away, and accessed via congested transmission lines.  So we also need local energy storage.  LADWP is already doing some of this by storing electricity in really big batteries (the same kind used in electric cars) that fit on the grounds of power plants like the ones being replaced…but more will be needed.  (One successful example of a large battery is the Hornsdale battery in Australia.  Southern California Edison will also be using batteries like this to replace three power plants, much as LADWP is considering, but they’re not online yet… and may be having permitting issues.)  

But what will it cost?

LADWP has already spent over $1.3 billion on replacing old once-through-cooled generators across its fleet of power plants, reducing seawater use in half and also reducing carbon emissions a bit. The 12 generator replacement options listed in the draft study range from the highest-emitting “just use fossil fuel everywhere like were going to,” to “use batteries at Haynes 1 and 2 and add some renewables,” or “use batteries at Scattergood and Haynes and add more renewables”…all the way through to “batteries everywhere and lots of renewables,” which is the lowest-emitting and most expensive.   Of the 12 options, four are being chosen for further study, including analysis to see how they would affect LADWP customers’ bills.  This analysis is complicated a bit by falling renewable energy and battery prices, volatile natural gas prices, uncertainty about how many customers will participate in energy efficiency programs, and the difficulty of putting a price on the value of emissions reductions.  (Quick, someone send up the Ratepayer Advocate bat-signal!)

So what’s next?

The LADWP board will hear updates on the power plant modernization issue and take a vote in the next few months.  Its next meeting (Tuesday Jan 8, 10 AM) should be interesting, as a number of environmental groups are planning to attend and comment.   The monthly LADWP Neighborhood Council Oversight meetings are also a great place to hear directly from DWP representatives, and to ask them or the LADWP’s Ratepayers’ Advocate questions.  So if you care about where your power comes from, how it affects our environment and climate, and how much you pay for it, please consider attending any or all of these meetings, and add your two cents to the discussion.

See also

California is aiming for 100% clean energy. But Los Angeles might invest billions in fossil fuels“, LA Times, Dec 20, 2018

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About Daniel Kegel

Dan Kegel is a software engineer and a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council's Sustainability Committee. He also volunteers with Citizens' Climate Lobby Los Angeles and is an occasional contributor to the Buzz.

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