Judge Rules Against Ellwood Peaker Plant

In a tersely worded proposed decision, Administrative Law Judge Regina DeAngelis set up each argument in favor of keeping the Ellwood peaker plant and then knocked them all down. The small plant currently fires up when Santa Barbara-Goleta electricity customers are in danger of rolling blackouts during times of peak usage, and it had been proposed as a supplemental power source for a larger Southern California area, as well as emergency power if Santa Barbara’s transmission towers fell during a natural disaster.

Upgrading the plant and adding battery storage had been proposed to help meet Southern California Edison’s long-term capacity needs out to 2021; nope, wrote DeAngelis, the plant is not new capacity. Ellwood would give Santa Barbara 54 megawatts of power in a natural disaster; nope, Oxnard’s close-to-being-approved Puente Plant and existing Mandalay Unit 3 provide more.

Plus, Ellwood can only operate 380 hours a year, or about 16 full days, and Edison thinks such an emergency would knock power out for weeks. And Ellwood is a “highly polluting resource permitted to emit as much as 103.59 pounds per hour of nitrogen oxide — which is over 20 times the normal emission rate of a modern peaking unit with modern emission controls,” DeAngelis wrote in a firm rejection of Edison’s application.

The Public Utilities Commission had directed SoCal Edison to provide 215-290 megawatts of power for its Moorpark sub-area by 2021. Ellwood was proposed by NRG Energy to meet some of that need, but the PUC wasn’t sure there was a need for it in Santa Barbara/Goleta, or if it were the best way to provide it. The associated battery storage proposal was considered dead if Ellwood went down.

The combustion turbines at Ellwood had been there since 1974. Neither the school — established in 1929 — nor the homeowners who’d moved in across Las Armas Road were in favor of it remaining, DeAngelis noted, especially for another 30 years. And, approving it worked against the PUC’s goal of “reduced reliance on fossil fuels.” In Edison’s application, the plant would be “refurbished” for greater reliability for the Goleta area and the proposed 10-year contract. The order to turn the plant on is up to California’s Independent System Operator, which monitors and controls the state’s power grid.

To argue Ellwood’s need in the reliability scheme of things, SoCal Edison proposed a new idea, that of a resiliency standard. Should a natural disaster topple the transmission towers — which carry two lines sending 230 kilovolts each to Santa Barbara and Goleta — Ellwood could provide 54 megawatts, plus four hours of battery power to 400 homes. Not necessarily so, DeAngelis wrote, citing the plant’s permit restrictions and the uncertainty of whether the Air Pollution Control District would approve a variance. She took note of the Santa Barbara County Reliability Project, which would upgrade the Santa Clara distribution system to 180 megawatts by April 2018 to reroute emergency power. But the peak load was 285 megawatts, still unachievable with Ellwood. With no timetable available for the expected natural disaster, and no prior judgments on the “resiliency” standard, it was better to review other options, she wrote.

DeAngelis pointed to Oxnard’s 262-megawatt Puente Project, approved by the PUC but still to go before other agencies, as well as NRG’s 130 megawatt Mandalay Unit 3, which the company expected to run “well into the future.” Combined, they were a better resource for the area than Ellwood, she concluded.

“This proceeding is closed,” the ruling ends, though it isn’t legally binding until the Public Utilities Commission votes on it, currently scheduled to take place May 26.


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