In recent years, Los Angeles has made major strides towards its goal of decarbonizing a famously unsustainable city. But it is making one serious misstep.
First, the good news. In February, environmental justice activists convinced the city to close three natural gas plants — the Scattergood, Haynes, and Harbor generating stations — that have operated next to residential neighborhoods for more than half a century. Mayor Eric Garcetti framed that decision as the foundation of a sweeping municipal Green New Deal that would accelerate Los Angeles’ transition towards carbon neutrality, carbon-free energy, and a more livable city.
More recently, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power finalized its longstanding plans to close the city’s last coal-fired power plant, the Intermountain Power Plant in Delta, Utah. The elimination of L.A.’s dirtiest source of power should have been another bit of great news, but there is a catch: The DWP plans to replace Intermountain with a brand-new natural gas plant on the same site, and city ratepayers will be on the hook for its power and pollution through 2077.
While natural gas cuts down on coal’s CO2 pollution, methane leaks in the supply chain erode its overall climate benefits. Natural gas is definitely not a source of clean energy, and renewing Los Angeles’ commitment to fossil fuel infrastructure by building a new natural gas plant is out of step with the city’s declared focus on climate solutions. Moreover, the terms of the Intermountain contract should raise eyebrows: the DWP has committed to operate the plant for 50 years — long past the decarbonization deadlines set by city policy and state law.
California’s landmark green energy plan, SB 100, requires utilities like the DWP to deliver 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045. The California Energy Commission, which is currently reviewing the utility’s clean energy plans, should ask how the DWP can reconcile committing to a new natural gas plant until 2077 with its transition to entirely carbon-free electricity. Without a convincing answer, the commission should reject the DWP’s approach.
The DWP argues that it needs natural gas as a bridge fuel, to fill in during the dark, windless hours when renewable technologies can’t produce enough power and existing energy storage technologies can’t fill the gap. This so-called “intermittency problem” is real, but with so many existing natural gas plants idling in California and across the West, the DWP has not justified why it needs yet another.
At the end of the day, though, the Intermountain contract’s 50-year commitment to new fossil fuel infrastructure isn’t a bridge — it’s an anchor. Even if it passes legal muster for now, the city will eventually have to contend with the cost of its stranded investment. Barring a technological miracle, by 2045 Los Angeles ratepayers will be left with an unusable power plant they must continue to pay for.
In the early 20th century, the DWP was seen as a pioneering utility. Larger-than-life figures like Ezra F. Scattergood, after whom the Scattergood Generating Station was named nearly 70 years ago, pushed technological and political limits in their quest to bring Los Angeles cheap and reliable electricity.
Later, as the city began to worry about its infamous pollution, power planners took the cheap and easy shortcut, building new plants like Intermountain far from Los Angeles. But while exporting the city’s pollution across state lines improved air quality in Los Angeles, it also degraded vast swaths of the West. The plants’ emissions obscured views of the Grand Canyon, while the mines that fed them brought devastating groundwater damage to the Hopi and Navajo peoples.
Now, as the world faces the urgent threat of climate change, the DWP finds itself at a crossroads. At the same time as it can’t seem to wean itself from Intermountain, it is also planning to sign record-breaking deals for clean energy. To meet the state’s ambitious — and necessary — goals, the DWP needs to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure.
Intermountain and its fellow out-of-state power plants bought Los Angeles peace of mind and air quality improvements at a high price for other parts of the West. The closure of the Scattergood, Haynes, and Harbor plants could mark a real turning point in Los Angeles’ commitment to environmental justice and climate progress — but only if Intermountain goes with them.
Josh Lappen is a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, where he studies the history of Western energy and electrification. He was born and raised in Los Angeles.