Seawater-Cooled Power Plants Escape Looming Shutdown

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The state’s Water Resources Control Board voted Tuesday to let several seawater-cooled power plants out of an approaching shutdown deadline --- so they can be used to avoid a repeat of  last month’s rolling blackouts. 

In mid-August, the state’s Independent System Operator ordered rolling blackouts to reduce demand, while relying on several of the state’s aging gas-powered plants to meet surging demand. 

“As we saw weeks ago, all these plants in combination are needed,” Ed Randolph, director of energy policy at the state’s Public Utilities Commission, told the state’s water board. “There are moments in time during the year where we may need the capacity of all of them, even though they run infrequently.’’

But there is a catch any time those so-called peaker plants are fired up to meet peak demand. 

“They actually take in billions of gallons of seawater a day – that seawater has marine life in it,” said Sean Bothwell, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance. Every day an un-retrofitted sea water plant operates, he says, billions of fish eggs, microscopic plankton and other marine life are sucked into giant intake pipes and die. Either from being slammed against water intake screens, or boiled alive during the cooling process. 

“That’s how much water is sucked in -- they can’t swim away,” Bothwell said. 

Back in 2010, the state water board gave the plants a decade to either retrofit to protect sea life or face shutdown by the end of 2020. 

Many of the original 19 plants subject to the deadline have ceased operation. One of the plants still open, at Moss Landing, agreed to make changes to limit marine losses.  

Bothwell says that while he is skeptical such measures will work, his group is more concerned that four more of the plants  -- in the coastal communities of Oxnard, Redondo Beach, Huntington Beach and Alamitos  --  must make mitigation payments to the state without making plans to fully retrofit before the deadline.  

California ISO official Neil Millar said those four plants must be available to be fired up to meet peak demand until more power sources go online in coming years.

“We strongly encourage adoption of the extension,” Millar told the board. “This has been requested for very important reliability reasons.”

But critics, like former CPUC president Loretta Lynch, question the need for blackouts. They say that while the cause of those blackouts is still under investigation, they believe the state doesn’t lack reserve capacity. Lynch says she suspects grid management is the problem. 

“So why should we allow the holdouts, the recalcitrants, the ones who are thumbing their noses at California’s clean energy laws and win?” 

After a daylong hearing, the water board voted to allow three of those plants to stay available to meet peak power demand for up to three years, while granting only a one-year operating extension for the plant at Redondo Beach, which is the oldest and most destructive to marine life. 

“This decision doesn’t come easy -- we know there are critical impacts to communities,” said board chair, E. Joaquin Esquivel.

Bothwell said he expected to lose this battle, given the threat of more of the widespread blackouts Californians experienced last month. 

“It was definitely not good timing for our argument.”

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