The epic heat and scattered blackouts in Glendale early this month were a wake up call to rethink our power system. Glendale has long relied on the gas-fired Grayson plant to generate electricity centrally then distribute it outward to power our homes. But this model is outdated. With the aging Grayson plant on its last legs, now is the time to chart a fresh course.
But what should that be? Glendale Water & Power wants another big gas plant — seemingly the only model they understand. This literally keeps the power in their hands, but it’s not a good deal for us.
A modern gas plant, while cleaner than plants of old, still emits climate-warming greenhouse gases and other dangerous pollutants. GWP’s environmental report finds the proposed plant would increase Glendale’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25% (in contrast, Pasadena and Los Angeles are implementing sharp cuts). Extreme heat, drought and fires in California should be all the warning we need that emitting more greenhouse gases is unacceptable. The new plant would also worsen air quality, particularly in an area with several schools and daycare centers that already has some of the worst air in the region.
Gas generation is not just environmentally dangerous, it no longer makes financial sense. Even with today’s cheap natural gas, rooftop solar coupled with batteries is competitive with new gas plants on a life-cycle basis. In fact, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, as prices continue to fall over the next 10 to 20 years, the cost of new renewable facilities will be less than the cost just to operate existing gas plants. A $500-million rebuilt Grayson would be a stranded asset long before it is paid off.
The alternative is distributed generation based on hundreds of points of clean, cheap solar generation spread across the city. This is the direction forward-thinking cities are headed.
Distributed power makes the grid more resilient. During the recent blackouts, GWP had enough power overall but couldn’t deliver it to specific neighborhoods where demand was exceptionally high. A new Grayson would not have helped. On the other hand, stored solar power distributed across the city could quickly deliver power to specific localities and head off a crash.
Furthermore, with the revolution in battery technology, solar no longer suffers from intermittency. Modern batteries deliver all the stabilizing services to the grid that gas provides, often with greater responsiveness, at costs which are competitive and falling fast.
To support this approach, our two groups, Glendale Environmental Coalition and Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, are working to promote a residential virtual power plant. Imagine 1,000 households with solar and batteries networked to mimic a small power plant. Participating residents lock in lower costs, just as they do with standard solar programs. But the batteries hold stored energy that can be delivered to the grid at targeted locations to meet peak needs, reducing the risk of system failures. It also helps avoid the environmental and financial costs of a new gas plant, and if power goes out anyway, homeowners have their batteries to keep the lights on.
The virtual power plant will not by itself solve Glendale’s power needs. But it is one of a portfolio of solutions that clean energy companies are eager to bring to Glendale. We hope our leaders will seize this opportunity to make Glendale a leader in renewable technology.
Daniel Brotman is an adjunct professor of economics at Glendale Community College. He recently formed the Glendale Environmental Coalition.