“This is the beginning of the end of natural gas for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti. It was February 2019. Three coastal natural gas power plants, which the City had intended to renovate at a cost of about $5 or $6 billion, were instead being canceled.
It was a win for a grassroots coalition, led by Food & Water Action, that had been organizing against the repowering. 2019, they had argued, was too late to be building new fossil fuel power plants. For $6 billion, imagine how many solar panels could be installed, or how much energy storage built. Their argument had prevailed.
The beginning of the end was declared again in Glendale a few months later, as a plan to rebuild that city’s own gas-fired power plant, Grayson, met intense local opposition from residents, including the Sierra Club, who didn’t want their city to build the last new fossil fuel plant in California.
And yet, despite the end of fossil fuels having arrived twice, Los Angeles is still planning to build a new gas plant.
But wait… wasn’t Grayson the last new plant?
In California, yes. But not powering California.
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has its hands in a lot of pies. Much like the way it steals water from the central valleys of California, it owns stakes in energy projects in other states. For example, energy from the Hoover Dam is sent to LA over long-distance transmission lines.
One of the distant plants that lights up the City of Angels is located in Delta, Utah, and is known as Intermountain Power Plant. Intermountain is a coal plant.
A successful Sierra Club campaign pressured the City to announce plans to shut down the coal plant in 2025. However, contrary to the Sierra Club’s hopes for renewable energy at the site, LADWP proposed that the replacement be fired by natural gas. Further opposition from the Sierra Club got the scale of the gas plant reduced from more than 1 GW to 840 MW, but after that, LADWP refused to budge.
The bottom line is that the city still planned to build a brand new fossil fuel plant in 2025.
Natural gas — methane — is not a clean source of energy. It is somewhat less awful than coal, though this is sort of like saying it’s better to crash into a brick wall at 800 miles an hour rather than 1,000. And when it leaks before it’s burned — which it does all the time — it’s 84 times as potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Yeah. Methane is bad.
The gas plant at Intermountain is supposed to come online in 2025, which is when the coal plant will retire. But this “compromise” plan to build a brand new fossil fuel power plant, which was agreed to in a different political era, has encountered fresh resistance in the last two years.
Since the compromise was brokered, SB100 was passed statewide, requiring utilities in CA to get all of their electricity from clean sources by 2045. That cut the lifespan of the planned Intermountain gas plant short by several decades. That’s a lot less time to pay off the investment in the plant. Burbank Water and Power told Burbank City Council that the plant — which Burbank owned a stake in — would be “uneconomic prior to the end of its intended life”. (LADWP, which has more leverage, ignored Burbank’s objections.)
Sunrise Rejects the Gas Plant Compromise
Though LADWP viewed their gas plant compromise as set in stone, the climate movement was changing. Sunrise Los Angeles, a new hub of the youth-led climate movement, appeared on the scene in 2019 without warning. Sunrisers did not see themselves as signatories to the gas plant proposal that LADWP pushed the City to pursue years before, and why should they? When the compromise was brokered, their organization hadn’t even existed yet.
Sunrise LA plowed forward with a last-ditch attempt to stop the new gas plant. They worked with the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance and Food & Water Action to draft a letter calling for the plan to be changed to be 100% renewable energy at Intermountain from Day 1 in 2025.
Disclosure: in my role as a member of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, & a member of Sunrise Los Angeles, I wrote most of the draft of this letter.
The letter garnered a flurry of signatories: 11 Neighborhood Councils, 27 organizations, and several candidates for local office. The list contained heavyweights like the Center for Biological Diversity. More than half of the organizations that signed are actually located in Utah.
The Sierra Club sensed an opportunity to continue opposing the gas plant, and they signed the letter as well. And LA Councilmember Paul Koretz, though he did not formally sign the letter, spoke in support of its content at a LADWP board meeting.
This new resistance seemed to catch LADWP off guard. In late 2019, they offered a new compromise: on Day 1 in 2025, the plant would burn 30% green hydrogen by volume. The hydrogen would be sourced from local water sources and generated by electrolysis, which would make it the first plant of its kind in history.
Since electrolysis requires energy, which LADWP said they would get from solar and wind, that makes this portion of the new Intermountain plan an energy storage facility. It will use extra solar energy to make hydrogen when the sun is shining; when the sun goes down, it will burn the hydrogen.
LADWP also repeatedly told Sunrise LA reps that it may be possible to make the facility 100% green hydrogen on Day 1 in 2025 — but they were choosing not to.
Dr. Frederick Pickel, LADWP’s Ratepayer Advocate, whose job is to safeguard the interests of the utility’s customers, described Intermountain as “a great site for renewables and storage.” He pointed out that the salt caverns underground were an ideal place to store hydrogen, and that the transmission infrastructure could handle sending the electricity to LA.
But Dr. Pickel also quoted a notorious climate-denying frequent public commenter, and concluded, “You don’t want to be racing to be first.” Dr. Pickel’s preferred solution was to wait for unspecified other utilities to work out the hard questions of the new technology, and then swoop in and reap the benefits of the efforts of the other utilities.
But if LADWP has an ideal site — an accessible transmission line, a link to nearby wind and solar resources, an identified water source for electrolysis, and underground salt domes to store the hydrogen — and still chooses not to pursue 100% renewable hydrogen, then who will? Who else is retiring a coal plant at a site like this, and has the funds to pursue it? What if everyone reasons like Dr. Pickel did, and decides not to go first?
If Los Angeles, at the cutting edge of renewable energy deployment, declined to pursue what they describe as a perfect opportunity, what utility will attempt what LADWP did not?
So the gas plant moved forward, 70% natural gas and 30% hydrogen by volume — an 11% reduction in its carbon footprint. LADWP declined to pledge to replace more of the 840 MW with renewables, whether from hydrogen or with more proven technologies.
Sunrise LA did not accept this new compromise. But further protests stopped yielding new concessions from LADWP. The young people had reached the limit of their leverage.
So for most of 2020, an uneasy truce reigned. But again, the landscape was shifting.
March 2020 saw the election of two Sunrise letter signatories to public office. Dan Brotman and Ardy Kassakhian became Councilmembers in Glendale, a city with a stake in Intermountain. November 2020 was even more productive, with signatories Konstantine Anthony and Nithya Raman getting elected in Burbank and Los Angeles, respectively.
Another disclosure: I worked for Konstantine Anthony as a campaign consultant.
Anthony has threatened to introduce a motion to pull Burbank out of the deal if it is not changed to a 100% renewable plan. But it is Raman’s election that has the deepest ramifications for Intermountain, since Los Angeles has the most capital invested in the project.
So by November 2020, four signatories suddenly held public office in cities that were party to the deal. The floodgates opened. Other elected officials began to sign, including Burbank Councilmember Nick Schultz and California Assemblymember Laura Friedman.
Let’s pause to note that “100% green energy at Intermountain” isn’t the only demand in the letter. It also has a hefty just transition clause for the coal plant’s workers, many of whom would be laid off under the current plan.
And in what feels like it must be some kind of historic first, a sitting Assemblymember has signed a letter calling for a citizen’s dividend. That’s a kind of Universal Basic Income that would have LADWP paying every resident of Delta, Utah a dividend for the privilege of sitting a power plant in their community, using their resources. If passed into law, everyone in town would get cash every year for as long as the plant operates.
The Alaska Permanent Fund is the only such dividend in America, and that’s funded by oil money. If an Intermountain citizen’s dividend became law, it would be a historic step for green energy, and it would change the way local communities look at new sustainable infrastructure.
The Beginning of the End?
It remains to be seen whether the newfound support of elected officials will result in yet another, final, greening of the Intermountain plan.
And it remains to be seen what an all-green solution at Intermountain would look like. Though LADWP is closest to trading natural gas for hydrogen, some activists would prefer solar and wind — for them, green hydrogen is already a compromise. For its part, the Sunrise letter is technology-agnostic, calling on LADWP’s engineers to find solutions to a problem whose constraints are defined by the physical bounds of the Earth’s biosphere.
Either way, we’re in uncharted territory. Supporters of the letter are organizing for another round of public comment, and we believe an Intermountain without fossil fuels is finally within reach.
I’ll close by saying the obvious: we should have decided decades ago not to build new fossil fuel power plants. The science was clear before I was even born.
But here we are. And if nobody else is going to stop this thing, then people of my generation will.
See you at the next LADWP board meeting.
How you can help:
Tell LADWP no new fossil fuel power plants: Attend the meeting on 1/26/20 at 9:45 AM using your phone to call in, and follow the instructions here on how to give public comment.
Correction: an earlier version of this article was missing details on the contributions of the Sierra Club.