California Energy Commission Favors Scrapping Puente NatGas Power Plant (But Will It Really?)

The California Energy Commission (CEC) just took the unprecedented step of recommending that the $300-million Puente natural gas power plant slated for Ventura County be mothballed. Power plant builder NRG is under contract to Southern California Edison to build the plant in Oxnard.

That's a real victory for renewable energy and for common sense. And it's a huge step for a commission that has never seen a natural gas power plant that it doesn't like. Even the commission admitted it was an "unusual" statement, according to The Los Angeles Times.

A special two-person committee is recommending that the full commission put the kibosh on the plant because it upsets state goals for renewable energy and communities--especially low-income ones that get to breathe the pollution.

But the real point is that California has massively overbuilt natural gas power plants, as copiously documented by The Los Angeles Times. So much so that California sometimes pays other states to take it. Consumer Watchdog found that 15 of them were greenlighted or constructed since Jerry Brown's election as governor, and it's costing ratepayers needless billions while increasing carbon emissions. State regulators allowed major investor-owned utilities to build in triple the required capacity to meet any emergency or unforeseen demand. 

Now the full CEC has to vote on the recommendation and the question is will they uphold the committee's recommendation or wuss out?

After all, the CEC, the Public Utilities Commission, Jerry Brown, and major investor-owned utilities are thick as thieves. Just look at cozy get-togethers like the one Brown took to Beijing to decry global warming. NRG was one underwriter of Brown's trip where power plant builders had plenty of access to Brown and to Robert Wiesenmiller, chair of the CEC.

No utility wants to see fossil fuel power plants phased out. They are a cash cow, providing a guaranteed rate of return from the pockets of hapless consumers, they are centralized so utilities maintain control of the grid versus pesky consumers and businesses opting for their own solar power systems. 

The CEC panel's recommendation came in the wake of protests from lawmakers and area residents that the plant is not needed, and only adds to the burden of pollution that primarily lower-income residents suffer. 

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the industry-oriented traffic cop for the grid, did its own study and determined that by procuring alternative resources, including solar power, demand response and energy storage, the Puente plant could be skipped entirely. 

But regulators talk out of both sides of their mouths on a regular basis to help investor-owned utilities protect centralized, fossil fuel power plants that guarantee shareholders a lavish rate of return off of a captive residential and small business customer base.

CAISO found that a combination of solar power, energy storage, and demand response could cost only about $10 million more othan the Puente plant--fractions of pennies for customers. But they also presented a costly alternative that made no sense to renewable energy experts, according to the trade publication, Utility Dive.

"We took a look at that $1.1 billion number and recognized that it was not anywhere close," Clean Coalition Policy Director Doug Karpa told Utility Dive. “They just muddled everything in, and said 'we're just gonna throw in a bunch of batteries.' From an engineering modeling standpoint it's perfectly fine, a megawatt is a megawatt," said Karpa. "But from a cost perspective, if you're actually gonna go out and build the thing, you would never use all batteries. You could talk to any developer out there, and they would say that's not the cost effective way to do that."

The cheapest alternative is solar-plus-storage, said Clean Coalition, a clean tech and renewble energy nonprofit which did its own modeling. CAISO, the grid's traffic cop, refused to discuss “specific aspects” of its cost studies, according to Utility Dive.

Surprise surprise.

Now the question is, is CAISO slyly supplying misinformation that will help the CEC vote to preserve the project? Time will tell.

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