Mayor Renews Promise to Get LA off Coal

The mayor of Los Angeles announced this week that LA would be getting off of coal and although it’s not the first time he’s made that promise, this time it sounds like it could happen. 

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hadn’t said much about his goal to eliminate all coal-powered electricity for LA for a couple of years following pushback from Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) management that getting out would not be easy because the utility has multi-decade financial commitments to coal-operated facilities. In 2009 Villaraigosa called for getting LA off of coal by 2020.

This time, he made a more measured, but also more specific announcement: claiming he would be signing commitments to get off of coal at the two major power plants that supply Los Angeles: Navajo Generating Station in Northern Arizona, and the Intermountain Power Project in Utah. Both are huge coal plants -- and massive sources of toxic and global warming pollution. 

The mayor has economics on his side -- and momentum. Other California utilities have also recently announced they are quitting coal. As Martin Hopper, the general manager of the Modesto, Santa Clara and Redding joint utility, said recently, “The decision of us to get out… is really -- it’s good economics, it’s self-executing. The time is right.  We have a duty to our ratepayers to provide the cleanest power at the best price, and the best price is what’s leading us out.” (See page 25 of the California Energy Commission transcript, linked above)

Perhaps he was also motivated by the declining cost of renewable energy, or because coal power just isn’t as reliable as it was supposed to be. The outage at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which supplies Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric has been in the news a lot and the future of that huge power plant will have major implications for southern California’s energy supply, but here’s a story you probably haven’t heard about: one of the massive generators at the Intermountain Power Project plant that also supplies the region was out of commission from December to May last year. One news report put the plant’s financial loss at $1 million per day. Anaheim, which only buys 13% of the power from Utah coal plant, estimates the outage cost the city over $5 million. At least one Utah utility said of the outage: "[California utilities] pick up the power, and they'll pick up the cost. " Hopefully the days of high-cost, high pollution are numbered for California.

Of course, there is also a legal reason for California utilities to get out of coal. SB 1368, the Emissions Performance Standard passed in 2006, prevents new long-term investment in the highest pollution-emitting power plants, including all coal power facilities. This will help California reach its AB 32 Global Warming Solutions Act targets of reducing climate-disturbing carbon pollution to 1990 levels by 2020.

The Emission Performance Standard is important to keep utilities in California on track.  Meanwhile, those utilities are required to provide 33% of their energy from renewable resources by 2020 and reduce greenhouse gas emission significantly. Therefore, it’s difficult to imagine why they would waste money on coal plants already having reliability problems. 

Getting out of coal is definitely a move in the right direction. It was not so many years ago that IPP was planning a major expansion (This link, provided by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbying organization, laments the loss, before construction, of this polluting giant). Mayor Villaraigosa, and his general manager at the LADWP, Ron Nichols, deserve huge credit. The next question is: will LA getting out of coal actually lead to any reduction in pollution? If LA simply sells its interest, and another utility takes responsibility for the polluting-monster plants, there is a huge -- and important -- symbolic and political value, but the tangible environmental benefit is less clear. 

Unfortunately, so far LA has seemed more interested in selling its share in coal than retiring these dirty plants. In the recent lease extension agreement (see page 2) for Navajo Generating Station, it appears the Salt River Project, an Arizona utility already very highly leveraged with coal power, will buy LA’s share.

EPA recently put out a proposed rule to require the Navajo Generating Station to reduce its impact on regional haze. But the best way to do that would be to follow the examples set at other western coal plants like Boardman and San Juan: burn less coal.

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