New DWP Generators Have Opponents Seeing Brown

Staff Reporter

Just as Los Angeles is coming off its worst smog season in six years, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power plans to fire up two new natural gas generators this April that will spew out tons of nitrous oxide.

The units at the DWP's Valley Generating Station in Sun Valley will replace 1950s-era models that have remained idle for a decade. They can produce up to 580 megawatts of needed electricity and will be far cleaner than the older generators.

Even so, a coalition of environmental groups is citing the plant in accusing the DWP of dragging its feet in developing non-polluting, renewable sources of energy. The new power generators are part of a plan approved by the City Council three years ago to refurbish several DWP power plants within the basin at a projected cost of nearly $2 billion.

"The region is sliding in its progress to clean air, and the left foot is waiting for the right foot to go forward," said Martin Schlageter, a staff member of the Coalition for Clean Air, which advocates alternatives such as wind farms for the L.A. basin. "Even these cleaner natural gas plants don't compare with the renewable option."

The coalition, which includes the Union of Concerned Scientists and the California Public Interest Research Group, issued a report projecting pollution emissions at the plant could increase 1,400 percent over 1995 levels, given plans by the DWP to rely on it for everyday generation.

Other plants refurbished

The Sun Valley plant is not the environmental activists' only concern.

Under a 2002 state law, California's investor-owned utilities are being required to draw 20 percent of their power from non-polluting, renewable sources by 2017. The DWP was partially exempted from the requirement and critics have suggested that the department is not moving fast enough.

Southern California Edison drew 23 percent of its power this past summer from solar, wind farms and other such sources leading the nation while DWP drew less than 3 percent from those sources.

"DWP definitely has been slow, but it has sufficient resources unlike other smaller municipals to get up to speed, " said City Councilman Tony Cardenas, who represents Sun Valley and chairs the council's Commerce, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the DWP.

Ironically, the utility's moves to refurbish natural gas-fired plants within Los Angeles will help clean up the air outside Los Angeles by lowering its reliance on higher-polluting coal-fired plants outside of the L.A. basin.

Currently, the DWP gets as much as 50 percent of its power from coal and 13 percent from nuclear plants. It also gets 10 percent from large hydroelectric, which is considered harmful to the environment given its impact on fish and other natural resources.

The DWP also claims that new gas turbines and pollution controls installed at its local power plants have radically reduced its emissions of nitrous oxide and other pollutants in the basin by 90 percent since 1989.

Much of these reductions have been prompted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which allows large pollution sources such as power plants to operate but requires them to gradually reduce emissions through a program in which polluters can buy and sell credits.

The same law that requires investor-owned utilities to move toward 20 percent renewable sources also mandates municipal utilities to develop their own similar plans, though it sets no firm targets given what is seen as the utilities' generally more limited financial resources.

Henry Martinez, chief operating officer for DWP's power system, defended the utility's progress, noting the massive size of the system, which serves 3.8 million residents.

"There are a lot of financial implications in this sort of decision," he said. He added that a rate cap in place since 1997 makes it difficult to move toward more expensive solar, wind and other sources, and that the DWP is not eligible for tax credits for energy alternatives being offered to investor-owned utilities.

Still, clean air advocates say that last year's smog season, during which there were smog alerts for the first time since 1997, shows that the utility must move faster.

Cardenas, a former legislator who voted for the bill that created the renewable energy mandate, said that if the DWP were to provide a workable plan he might consider allowing the utility to raise rates. But if it appears to be dragging its feet, he said he might seek new legislation that would force its hand.

Last year, the council's commerce committee, then headed by former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, asked the chief legislative analyst's office to work with the DWP in developing a renewable energy plan, including targets and dates. That plan, whose release has been repeatedly delayed, is nearing completion, perhaps as soon as this week.

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