Reversing years of clean power priorities, the California Energy Commission is waiving air quality protections and rushing permits for new diesel-burning generators and gas-fired power plants in a desperate push to get more generation online by the end of October. The vote came on Aug. 17 and was unanimous.
The expedited process applies to new fossil generation that can provide power at peak times as the sun sets. Control over expedited permit approvals has been shifted from the full commission to the executive director. Approved orders are final and cannot be appealed.
Any new permitted generation can remain online for five years. The expedited process also applies to permits to increase power plant output. The expedited permits are pursuant to two new emergency orders.
The CEC is acting under the authority of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s July 30 order to get more resources online this summer to shore up the grid. If an intense heat wave extends across the West this summer, the grid could come up short by up to 3.5 GW.
“Time is of the essence,” Commissioner Siva Gunda said during an unusual Tuesday afternoon meeting.
Only a single member of the public spoke at the Tuesday afternoon meeting. “We shouldn’t be putting carbon out there at a time we can’t afford to do that,” Steve Uhler said. He urged the commission to explore reviving power plants that are idle and on standby instead of building new polluting plants.
Expedited permits for new generation at least 10 MW
One of the orders applies to new generation 10 MW or more, powered by diesel fuel or natural gas. The other is for permit changes to allow expansions of existing gas plants. Both orders waive requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and coastal protections. California has several aging power plants on the coast that use large quantities of seawater to cool hot spinning turbines. In 2010, rules were approved to phase out their use because of the harm to the aquatic environment.
The CEC orders, like Newsom’s directive, allow fossil fuel generation to exceed protective air and water limits beginning two hours before a flex alert is called and continue until one hour after it is called off.
Diesel pollution, in particular, has long been a health concern because the particulates from burning diesel are by far the largest air contributor to lung cancer risk in the state. Together with nitrogen oxide emissions they can cause and worsen asthma and heart disease. CEC waivers of state permits for large diesel backup systems at data centers in recent years have been very controversial.
As long as plant owners assert that the new installations or expansions “can reasonably be expected to contribute to reducing the energy supply shortfall by October 31, 2021” and “on balance” support the emergency order directing the CEC “to act immediately to achieve energy stability,” their projects are virtually guaranteed approval.
The new gas and diesel power systems are supposed to install pollution control technology—Best Available Control Technology—“as soon as practical,” Shawn Pittard, CEC deputy director of siting and transmission, said. In addition, diesel systems are supposed to convert to natural gas as soon as possible. But there is no timeline, making such conversions essentially voluntary.
The CEC and the Department of Water Resources, which operates the massive water supply and hydropower of the State Water Project, together have assessed the potential of some 40 power plant sites. State Water Project Deputy Director Ted Craddock said 130 MW– 30 MW at five sites — of additional power was identified.
Two of the units will be in Roseville and another two in Yuba City. “The temporary power generation units will be placed near existing power generation sites so that they can feed directly into the grid as needed at the direction of the California Independent System Operator,” Ryan Endean, DWR spokesperson, said. They are expected to be online by mid-September.