California has been pushing for years to drive fossil fuels out of its electricity grid. Now it thinks it might have tap the brakes — and keep a fleet of natural gas-fired plants operating past their scheduled expiration dates — to make sure the state has enough power.

The proposal is prompting environmentalists to warn that California might backslide in its commitment to fighting air pollution and climate change. There’s also a threat, because of the specialized nature of these power plants, to fish species.

California has been at the forefront of incorporating solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy into its grid. The state’s utilities get about one third of their power from renewables already; state law says they must raise that to 50 percent by 2026, 60 percent by 2030 and go completely green by 2045.

At issue is the fate of 11 power plants, all fueled by natural gas, located on oceanfront property in Southern California. All of them are known as “once-through cooling” plants, which means they draw water from the ocean to cool themselves down. They’re all scheduled for shutdown in December 2020, under an order by the State Water Resources Control Board, mainly because the cooling systems have been known to kill fish and fish larvae.

When the state water board set out the timetable for closing the plants, staff members said the cooling systems had also been blamed for killing dozens of seals, sea lions and sea turtles every year. Environmentalists also say they’re aging clunkers — some at least 50 years old — that are fouling the air.

“Over-reliance on older natural gas power plants has more of a negative impact on air quality compared to cleaner, carbon-neutral resources,” said Larissa Koehler, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund.

But leaders of the Public Utilities Commission and the Independent System Operator, the nonprofit organization that runs the state’s power grid, are so worried about energy supplies over the next few years that they’re seeking a three-year reprieve on shuttering the Southern California plants.

The plants are capable of generating a total of 3,750 megawatts — enough to power 2.8 million homes.

Mark Rothleder, a vice president at the Independent System Operator, said in an interview Tuesday that the shutdown of power plants could strain the grid’s ability to meet demand.

“It does run to the potential for blackouts,” Rothleder said. Last week he told the organization’s board of directors that “we are now going into a period where capacity will be tight for several years.”

Last week, an administrative law judge of the Public Utilities Commission formally recommended that the state water board postpone the retirement of the 11 plants. The full commission is expected to endorse the recommendation next month.

Officials with the state water board declined comment. When it established the timetable for retiring the power plants nine years ago, water board officials stressed the importance of balancing environmental concerns with the need to maintain reliability of the power grid.

State officials have been adamant about having enough electricity since rolling blackouts hit during the energy crisis in 2001. It’s been a point of pride among grid officials that California has weathered heat waves in recent years without coming close to major blackouts.

“We want to make sure we’re not getting close to that point,” said Severin Borenstein, a system operator board member and UC Berkeley energy economist.

What’s changed? The state’s margin for error has shrunk because other “once-through cooling” have been mothballed. Other Western states that used to sell surplus electricity to California are now keeping more for themselves as their populations grow.

In addition, while solar energy supplies have boomed in recent years in California, solar comes with a built-in shortcoming: Once the sun goes down, the power dries up, putting a strain on supplies during evening hours. Emerging energy-storage technologies could help but they haven’t yet advanced far enough to become a cure-all, Borenstein said.

Electricity supplies “kind of have to fit when we need the energy,” Rothleder said.

Borenstein and Jan Smutny-Jones, who runs a trade association of power generators, said the return of blackouts would be disastrous politically for a state that wants to move ahead on renewable energy.

“I’m worried about public support eroding for other technologies, cleaner technologies,” said Smutny-Jones, head of the Independent Energy Producers Association.

Environmentalists acknowledge the risk of power shortages — but say the state can retire those power plants and still avoid blackouts.

“The Sierra Club doesn’t want to see the lights go out,” said Katherine Ramsey, a staff attorney for the environmental group. “But there are cleaner alternatives than extending the life of these plants.” Ramsey said California could build more renewable energy plants and work harder on managing its power usage.

Aside from the effect on fish, Ramsey said the Southern California power plants are heavy air polluters. “The air quality, and the impact on the communities near these plants,” will be hurt if the plants are allowed to stay open, she said.


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