More cities reject coal-fired power

Times Staff Writer

In an abrupt about-face, Burbank and several other Southern California cities are joining with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in abandoning plans to renew long-term contracts for coal-fired electricity from a Utah power plant.

In forsaking their largest power source, the cities will be gambling on the availability of adequate alternative energy from cleaner sources by 2027, after their current contracts with the Utah facility expire.

“It’s a huge change,” Burbank Mayor Todd Campbell cheerfully admitted. Campbell and the City Council had voted unanimously last month to extend their contract with the Intermountain Power Agency in Delta, Utah, to 2044, seeking to beat the clock on a landmark greenhouse-gas state law that takes effect Jan. 1 prohibiting such contract renewals.

The change could put Southern California in the forefront nationally of the commercial use of alternative energy in coming years, including wind and solar power. It could also put the region ahead in the capture and burial of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas believed to be most responsible for global warming.

Six of the Southland’s largest cities depend on Intermountain for half to two-thirds of their electricity. Researching and building infrastructure to replace it will be a costly, risky business, utility managers warned.


“It’s a very challenging undertaking. All of these technologies are still in their infancy,” said Phyllis Currie, general manager of Pasadena Water & Power. Pasadena is one of the cities joining in the decision. “We’re still looking at the fact that right now, the Intermountain plant is 65% of our energy.”

DWP President David Nahai, who already had said the city would not renew its contract with Intermountain, said, “We’re very pleased that our fellow cities have decided not to renew their contracts either. Many of them had initially decided to do so, and then I think really showed a lot of courage and grace in reconsidering their decision.”

Pasadena, Burbank, Glendale, Riverside and Anaheim representatives all told Intermountain’s General Manager Reed Searle on Monday at the utility’s quarterly meeting that they would not be renewing their contracts for cheap, coal-fired power.

“That is correct. I think everybody has decided basically not to renew at this time,” Searle said Tuesday, noting with exasperation that the agency had drawn up the renewal contracts “at the request of the Californians” and that he had gone to the Utah Legislature to obtain special permission to do so.

The cities acted in the face of mounting pressure from local constituents, environmentalists and politicians, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland), author of the greenhouse-gas legislation, which includes a ban on power from sources that generate more such gases than in-state natural gas plants. Feinstein wrote a letter to an umbrella group for the cities last week saying she was “shocked and dismayed by Burbank’s decision” after the council had voted to renew its contract with Intermountain.

Staff members of several utilities met in Sacramento on Monday with Perata’s and other legislators’ staff to explain what was at stake for the cities and ratepayers.

“We basically wanted to explain how important Intermountain Power is to California cities.... It’s a serious issue when you tell us to walk away from it,” said Currie, who like others noted that the cities had been paying billions in long-term costs for construction of the coal plants but would lose the right to much cheaper power after those costs were paid off in 2027 and their contracts expired.

Traditional coal-fired plants are the cheapest, most reliable source of power but emit tons of carbon dioxide skyward along with other harmful air pollutants. Annual CO2 emissions at the Intermountain plants total more than 16 million tons, according to an analysis by the conservation group Environmental Defense.

V. John White of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology, which is part of an environmental consortium trying to replace coal-fired power across the West, said Intermountain is “not used to the light of day. They’re used to having a cocktail with a city official and renewing a deal” with no public discussion. He said the change of heart by Southern California officials occurred because “there was a public outcry, and it forced yes or no votes on global warming.”

He said the next challenge would be to thoughtfully consider all available alternatives, from wind farms in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles to desert solar power.

Intermountain’s Searle said the Utah agency worked for three years on the renewals and now was looking at ways to modernize its plants to bring them into compliance with California’s greenhouse-gas legislation, including burning biomass -- which includes fast-growing trees and plants as well as waste products -- instead of coal, or possible burial of carbon dioxide. He warned that such measures “will be costly” to consumers.

Biomass conversion would cost about $300 million, he said, and carbon capture and sequestration technologies would cost billions. But Searle said the Utah plants were uniquely situated over a large salt dome that could be ideal as an underground storage site for the gas. The agency also extended its renewal offer for any sort of power from the plants until 2023. The previous deadline was next May. California utility officials hope that state legislators will allow them to renew the contracts if greenhouse gases are reduced.

“We can’t just blanket 100 miles of the desert with solar panels. And besides, solar doesn’t work at night,” said David Wright, general manager of Riverside Public Utilities. He and Burbank officials said they were most interested in integrated gasification combined cycle power, which creates cleaner gas and steam power from coal and could allow CO2 to be separated and buried.

The DWP’s Nahai said the fact that the current contracts don’t expire until 2027 leaves ample time.

“None of us are going to impose an economic upheaval on society, so of course the issue of cost is tremendously important,” Nahai said. “But the question of benefits is also important ... and 21 years is a long time.”

But Wright said, “Everybody keeps saying we can replace that power in 20 years. But we don’t just replace that power with a decision in 20 years. We have to decide in the next five years where we’re going to get that power, and start constructing it.”