Despite debate, resident pushback, Grayson renovation project moves ahead

About 500 protesters, requests for additional studies and more than six hours of deliberation could not temporarily stop plans to evaluate the renovation of the Grayson Power Plant, with City Council advancing toward a March 27 review of the project’s final Environmental Impact Report, or EIR.

At a status update meeting Tuesday, council members voted 4-1 to keep the date because the EIR will provide council and the public with a full scope of data to make the best decision on whether to adopt the plans, pursue alternatives or halt the renovation altogether.

The final EIR will incorporate answers to about 1,200 written and voiced public comments about the proposed renovation.

The March review does not guarantee EIR certification and, depending on how the report is received, council members can still vote to pause the project if it doesn’t meet their expectations.

If council votes on a temporary suspension, they could request that city staff arrange for a study on renewable alternatives independent of consultants Stantec, which is based in Canada, and Pace Global, which is based in Fairfax, Va.

Glendale Water & Power is pursuing a $500-million renovation of the nearly 80-year-old, gas-powered plant, which Steve Zurn, the utility’s general manager, has repeatedly said is currently inefficient and unreliable with seven of its eight electrical-generation units in need of replacement.

The project would provide about 250 megawatts of electricity to meet the utility’s peak load of 350 megawatts. The utility has reported 40 unplanned outages since May 2015.

Grayson also faces an air-quality risk assessment on current operations by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which could result in a plant shutdown if the Glendale utility does not begin to mitigate its pollution by 2020, according to Karl Lany, an air quality consultant.

Still, according to the utility, “the permitted emissions from the repowered plant would be greater than recent historic actual emissions from the existing plant” but are below the mass emission levels that SCAQMD “considers to be significant.”

A coalition of residents

An investment on natural gas power at Grayson has not sat well with a number of Glendale residents, many of whom have assembled outside Glendale City Hall before the last two city council meetings at the urging of the Glendale Environmental Coalition.

A majority of the 93 public comment cards at Tuesday’s meeting were from people opposing the renovation for reasons that included concerns that the city is prioritizing natural gas over clean-energy alternatives.

A smaller number of speakers represented local unions and showed support for the renovation.

Daniel Brotman, leader of the coalition, invited James Caldwell — a renewable technology specialist and former assistant manager of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power — as an extra voice in the debate.

Caldwell said many other cities are wrestling with whether to build a new gas plant or shut down an existing one and what to replace it with for the purposes of reliability.

“It’s not a matter of economics, it’s not a matter of supplying the energy — that game is over,” Caldwell said. “The cheapest energy today is renewables. The issue is the reliability.

“Of the 40,000 megawatts of gas plants in the state right now, we will only need 20,000. So the retirements in the gas fleet over the next 10 years arethe real issue. It doesn’t mean we can get rid of gas altogether … but it does mean that we’re going to be burning roughly half the gas,” he added.

Throughout the six-hour discussion, Zurn addressed repeated concerns from the public and council members about potential energy rate hikes to offset construction costs, suspicion that the project is motivated, in part, by the sale of energy and that the repower is an outright rejection of renewable alternatives.

The utility has proposed to pay for the renovation through revenue bonds, and Zurn said there will not be an energy-rate increase associated with the repower. Also, utility officials said they do not expect to generate additional revenue from Grayson.

“There’s been a lot of accusations that we built an oversized plant in order to sell power so that we could pay for it … Was it discussed? Absolutely … I was asked by council members, so I answered that question,” Zurn said.

A purchase power agreement, which outlines terms for the sale of electricity between two parties, has not been brought to the council, and Zurn said he “does not intend” to introduce one.

The draft EIR, which is still subject to change, lists project alternatives that include renewable and alternative energy options.

However, a repowering that relies heavily on rooftop solar and storage has been all but ruled out by project consultants who said that solution would be too costly and could not generate enough megawatts to preclude the proposed natural-gas project.

Conflict of interest allegations

There was pushback from Councilman Zareh Sinanyan, who requested the status update meeting in December over concerns that the increase of greenhouse gas emissions from the Grayson project would clash with council’s recent support of the United Nations Paris Agreement.

Although Councilman Vrej Agajanian raised similar concerns over long-term investment in a natural-gas facility — saying he could not imagine what his children would think decades from now — it was Sinanyan who cast the dissenting vote on Tuesday.

Sinanyan said he found the analysis in the draft EIR “flawed” because Pace Global — the consultant hired to prepare the Glendale utility’s plan for providing electric service to its customers and later influenced the draft EIR — is a subsidiary of Siemens, a global industrial manufacturing company.

City Council hired Pace Global in 2014 to create the plan and, in 2017, entered into a contract with Siemens Energy Inc. for supply of gas-powered electrical generation units.

“I think in any other sphere of business that would be a clear conflict of interest and, therefore, any conclusions reached by Pace Global or Siemens would be suspect,” Sinanyan said.

Sinanyan made a motion requesting that the utility suspend all work on the Grayson project until a third-party consultant complete a report with proposals for clean-energy alternatives that both meet reliability obligations and avoid further investments in natural gas.

He also sought for the creation of an ad hoc committee to give advice on the project.

“I can’t rely on a study that is not absolutely impartial and unbiased,” Sinanyan said.

The motion was met with no support as council members Agajanian, Paula Devine, Ara Najarian and Mayor Vartan Gharpetian preferred to see the final EIR before making any further decisions on the project.

Twitter: @JeffLanda