But a Great Day for Those Who Love New Polluting Power Plants

March 13, 2014
By Shana Lazerow, CBE Staff Attorney

Right now, I am taking a slow, deep breath, not because the air is clean, but because it is going to get much dirtier, thanks to decisions this morning by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) and the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

Have you heard that natural gas power plants are clean energy?  Not.  True.  They emit many pollutants.  Today, I’m thinking about particulate matter (PM), especially the very small PM2.5 that burrows deep into people’s lungs, sends them to the hospital with asthma, and shortens their lives.

Yesterday morning, BAAQMD heard about pollution from Russell City Energy Center, PG&E’s newest gas power plant, which is in Hayward, one city south of Oakland where our community members are working hard to decrease PM2.5  in the air.  When I started working with CBE in 2005, CBE had already been worried about proposals for Russell City for years.  The plant went through more rounds of air permit scrutiny than any project I have ever seen.  It spent more than a decade trying to get built.  We told the regulators it would have serious air and water impacts, but they permitted it anyway.  Russell City has only been operating since August 2013.  In this short amount of time, it has been violating its particulate limits to such an extreme that BAAQMD issued an order to shut down the plant.  I have never seen BAAQMD issue an order to shut down before.  An order like that, unfortunately, has to be approved by the BAAQMD Hearing Board.  Before the hearing date (yesterday) Russell City worked out a deal, saying “don’t shut us down, we know how to fix this problem.”

CBE joined busloads of community members in urging BAAQMD to shut down Russell City unless it complies now with its air permit.  BAAQMD approved the deal anyway.

Meanwhile, four blocks away, the PUC put the “back” back in “backroom.”  We have been working for the better part of the year to convince the PUC to follow the facts: despite closing the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, Southern California has no need for more energy generation, and definitely no need for new gas plants.  The PUC looked at a totally improbable set of events: three big powerlines going out of service on the same day, which happens to be the day that has the highest energy need in 10 years, which also happens to be the day when all the renewables and conservation programs we’ve spent billions of dollars to put in place fail.  Energy experts spent a lot of time looking at this contingency.  These experts said new gas powerplants are not the way to address this extremely unlikely event.

Last month the PUC issued a problematic proposed decision that said there was a need for new generation.  While it did require that some of the need be met with renewables, like solar, it left the rest of the procurement open to being met with renewables or new gas.  What worried me, other than the fact that the PUC would be requiring utilities to buy huge amounts of generation we don’t need, was that instead of requesting offers to meet the need, the utilities would be entitled to enter into direct contracts with companies to sell power to meet the need.  This would mean less public oversight, and less ability for renewables to compete with gas.

Recently I learned the proposed decision had changed for the worse.  The PUC increased the amount it was authorizing to match the size of a powerplant one particular developer, NRG, wants to build in San Diego.

So yes, yesterday morning after asking politely for BAAQMD to stop Russell City from operating until it shows it won’t poison our communities with PM2.5, we hustled over to the PUC.  Both meetings’ public comment periods started at 9:30.  We got to the PUC at 10.  Not only was public comment completed, the PUC had already voted, 5-0, to adopt the decision.  This means “all-source” procurement exactly matching a proposed new gas plant.  This means bilateral contracts to fill that procurement.

We have one powerplant blowing out PM2.5 with BAAQMD’s blessing, and more powerplants looking forward to joining it to operate for the next forty years.  So take a deep breath, let’s see how long we can hold it.

Photo credit: Nara, Flickr