Power by the people

Pasadena, other cities abandon effort to skirt new global warming law

By David Czamanske 12/07/2006

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Six Southern California cities, under pressure from the environmental community, a state legislative leader and US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have adroitly sidestepped a confrontation with new legislation designed to reduce California's contribution to global warming.

The near-confrontation resulted from the enactment of SB 1368, a new state law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September and set to take effect Jan. 1.

SB 1368 prohibits California municipal utilities from entering into new contracts or renewing existing contracts for electric power for five years or more, unless emissions generated by the power plant concerned comply with a new greenhouse gas emission performance standard to be established by the California Energy Commission.

How does this affect Southern California cities? Six Southern California cities get a significant share of their base load power, in some cases over 50 percent, from Intermountain Power Plant, a large coal-burning power facility located in Delta, Utah.

Construction of IPP, which was completed in 1986, was financed in large part by the six cities, which consume 75 percent of the plant's power output in proportion to their financial commitment: Los Angeles 44.6 percent, Anaheim 13.2 percent, Riverside 7.6 percent, Burbank 4.4 percent, Pasadena 3.4 percent and Glendale 1.7 percent. Although the plant's two power units are fitted with high-quality scrubbers to reduce sulfur and nitrous oxides and precipitators to reduce particulate matter, emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are uncontrolled.

The near-confrontation came about innocently enough. The Intermountain Power Authority, a Utah public agency which owns the plant, extended an offer to the six cities last July for renewal of their existing power contracts, which expire in 2027, through the year 2044. IPA gave the cities until May 2007 to decide whether or not they want to renew.

As of early October, only the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had responded, indicating it had been directed by its Water and Power Commission not to renew. Each of the other five cities was carefully but leisurely considering its response.

The enactment of SB 1368 changed that rather quickly. The managers of the power utility departments in the other five cities saw the opportunity to renew their IPP contracts slipping away. Action soon followed; the Burbank City Council authorized contract renewal on Oct. 24, as did the Riverside Public Utilities Board on Nov. 4, and Pasadena Water and Power wrote a staff report recommending renewal.

Meanwhile, however, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies and local citizens became aware that contract renewals were about to happen. Acting both publicly and behind the scenes, they pointed out that trying to avoid complying with a new law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was not in the public interest, nor in the long-term interest of the cities.

Feinstein weighed in with a strongly worded letter of condemnation, and the chief of staff of state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, author of SB 1368, made it clear that the senator was not looking kindly on attempts to circumvent the law. News articles appeared condemning the proposed renewals.

The public attention had the desired impact. Burbank Mayor Todd Campbell, long active with the Coalition of Clean Air, said he had been unaware of the issue's complexity when his City Council had routinely authorized contract renewal on Oct. 24, and would ask the council to rescind its action. Riverside Utility General Manager David Wright similarly asked his Public Utilities Board to rescind approval.

In Pasadena, Councilman Sid Tyler, chair of the council's Municipal Services Committee, said there were too many uncertainties to take action now on a renewal that would not take effect until 2027. Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, Vice Mayor Steve Madison and Councilman Paul Little indicated they could not support renewal. 

At a meeting of IPA's Coordinating Committee in Burbank on Nov. 20, representatives of all five cities that were considering renewal indicated to Reed Searle, general manager of IPA, that they no longer intended to do so at this time. 

Instead the coordinating committee adopted a motion introduced by Fred Fletcher, assistant general manager of Burbank Water and Power, to establish a subcommittee to prepare a budget proposal for funding a study to evaluate ways in which greenhouse gas emissions from IPP might be reduced.

Meanwhile, Searle's board of directors, somewhat exasperated at the turn of events, has extended the opportunity to renew the contracts until 2023.

Costly modifications to the power plant, such as converting it to a more environmentally friendly integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant, or capturing the greenhouse gases and sequestering them underground in nearby salt domes, are among the alternatives that will be looked at.

Is this a positive turn of events? Yes, if it actually results in significant reduction of greenhouse gases from this power plant and the eventual phasing out of this and other coal-burning plants.

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