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Environmentalists balk as Glendale power plant officials unveil ‘portfolio of tomorrow’

Councilmembers Dave Weaver and Ara Najarian walk through a control room inside the Grayson Power Pla
Former Councilman Dave Weaver and current Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian toured the Grayson Power Plant in 2015. During a recent Glendale Water & Power Commission meeting, a plan for replacing Grayson’s aging equipment was released and recommended to the City Council.
(Tim Berger / Glendale News Press)

A proposal to rebuild Glendale’s aging power plant includes significantly less natural gas than a now-scrapped plan from last year — but still doesn’t sit well with environmental advocates who think any amount is too much.

Under the plan recommended by the Glendale Water & Power Commission this week, several soon-to-be retired gas turbines at the Grayson Power Plant would be replaced by a combination of battery storage, wind and solar power, and programs to reduce energy consumption by homes and businesses, as well as five internal-combustion engines that run on natural gas.

Gary Dorris, president of the consulting company that developed the proposal, said it balances several goals, including environmental sustainability, low energy costs and keeping the lights on.

“I think this portfolio represents a perfect vision of a clean-energy supply portfolio of tomorrow,” Dorris said during the commission meeting on Wednesday.

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The Glendale City Council is expected to consider the plan on July 23. If approved, the gas plant would have a capacity of 93 megawatts — down from the 262 megawatts proposed last year.

The issue of whether the plant should be repowered, even in part, with gas — and, if so, how much — has pitted Glendale Water & Power representatives and other city officials against environmental groups, which see the move as contributing to climate change.

“We are still not convinced that fossil fuels are needed. Certainly not this much, and even more certainly not all at once,” Dan Brotman, founder of the Glendale Environmental Coalition, said during the public-comment portion of the meeting.

Across the state, public officials and power companies are reevaluating their reliance on natural gas, which is responsible for nearly half of California’s in-state electricity generation.

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Earlier this year, Los Angeles officials scrapped plans to rebuild three gas-fired power plants along the West Coast, saying they would find clean energy alternatives instead. Last month, General Electric said it would shut down a gas plant in Riverside County 20 years ahead of schedule.

Those shifts have been driven by government policy as well as economics. State lawmakers passed a bill last year requiring California to get 100% of its electricity from climate-friendly sources by 2045, a move that has forced electric utility managers to reconsider long-term investments in fossil fuels.

The falling costs of solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries are also eating into profits for some gas-plant operators, accelerating the energy transition.

However, utility managers are hesitant to abandon gas too quickly, because it’s still better than solar and wind at reliably generating electricity around the clock.

That tension has been playing out in Glendale, where environmentalists pressured the City Council to reject a plan that called for triple the amount of gas now being considered.

Their mobilization led to the city launching a new call for proposals, with an emphasis on greener, more sustainable options.

Glendale ultimately decided to downsize the proposed gas plant and add a 50-megawatt battery with four hours of energy storage, among other clean resources.

But Dorris said some gas is still necessary, in part because the city doesn’t have much space for renewable energy facilities in its own backyard.

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Glendale could import more solar and wind energy through long-distance power lines, but there’s not much space on the existing transmission system to accommodate new power.

The city would likely need to work with the much larger Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to build new long-distance wires.

“The odds are very remote that you’re going to be able to get all the transmission you need to bring renewables to the city of Glendale,” Dorris said.

Environmentalists disagree.

“The idea that new transmission is an impossibility, that it won’t occur in our lifetimes, is really pretty ridiculous,” Brotman said during public comment.

Ultimately, the three utility commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting said they could not bet Glendale’s energy future on changes that may not come to pass, like increased transmission.

“The last thing I want to do is launch this Titanic without any lifeboats,” commissioner Roland Kedikian said.

However, Kedikian recommended that the City Council approve the installation of the five gas-powered internal combustion engines individually, in case one or more are not ultimately needed.

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He also recommended that the city provide updates to the public about the engine usage.

It was a suggestion that dovetailed into another, by commission president Hrand Avanessian, to use the engines for backup only.

Fellow commissioner Dan Watson included all three recommendations in his unanimously approved motion to send the proposed plan to City Council.

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