Los Angeles Times  [Printer-friendly version]
November 22, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In a bold move, five major cities in southern
California have refused to renew electric power contracts with a coal-
fired plant. They are betting alternative sources of power will be
available when their present contract runs out in 2027.]

By Janet Wilson

In an abrupt about-face, Burbank and several other Southern California
cities are joining with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
in abandoning plans to renew long-term contracts for coal-fired
electricity from a Utah power plant.

In forsaking their largest power source, the cities will be gambling
on the availability of adequate alternative energy from cleaner
sources by 2027, after their current contracts with the Utah facility

"It's a huge change," Burbank Mayor Todd Campbell cheerfully admitted.
Campbell and the City Council had voted unanimously last month to
extend their contract with the Intermountain Power Agency in Delta,
Utah, to 2044, seeking to beat the clock on a landmark greenhouse-gas
state law that takes effect Jan. 1 prohibiting such contract renewals.

The change could put Southern California in the forefront nationally
of the commercial use of alternative energy in coming years, including
wind and solar power. It could also put the region ahead in the
capture and burial of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas believed to
be most responsible for global warming.

Six of the Southland's largest cities depend on Intermountain for half
to two-thirds of their electricity. Researching and building
infrastructure to replace it will be a costly, risky business, utility
managers warned.

"It's a very challenging undertaking. All of these technologies are
still in their infancy," said Phyllis Currie, general manager of
Pasadena Water & Power. Pasadena is one of the cities joining in the
decision. "We're still looking at the fact that right now, the
Intermountain plant is 65% of our energy."

DWP President David Nahai, who already had said the city would not
renew its contract with Intermountain, said, "We're very pleased that
our fellow cities have decided not to renew their contracts either.
Many of them had initially decided to do so, and then I think really
showed a lot of courage and grace in reconsidering their decision."

Pasadena, Burbank, Glendale, Riverside and Anaheim representatives all
told Intermountain's General Manager Reed Searle on Monday at the
utility's quarterly meeting that they would not be renewing their
contracts for cheap, coal-fired power.

"That is correct. I think everybody has decided basically not to renew
at this time," Searle said Tuesday, noting with exasperation that the
agency had drawn up the renewal contracts "at the request of the
Californians" and that he had gone to the Utah Legislature to obtain
special permission to do so.

The cities acted in the face of mounting pressure from local
constituents, environmentalists and politicians, including Sen. Dianne
Feinstein and state Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland), author of the
greenhouse-gas legislation, which includes a ban on power from sources
that generate more such gases than in-state natural gas plants.
Feinstein wrote a letter to an umbrella group for the cities last week
saying she was "shocked and dismayed by Burbank's decision" after the
council had voted to renew its contract with Intermountain.

Staff members of several utilities met in Sacramento on Monday with
Perata's and other legislators' staff to explain what was at stake for
the cities and ratepayers.

"We basically wanted to explain how important Intermountain Power is
to California cities.... It's a serious issue when you tell us to walk
away from it," said Currie, who like others noted that the cities had
been paying billions in long-term costs for construction of the coal
plants but would lose the right to much cheaper power after those
costs were paid off in 2027 and their contracts expired.

Traditional coal-fired plants are the cheapest, most reliable source
of power but emit tons of carbon dioxide skyward along with other
harmful air pollutants. Annual CO2 emissions at the Intermountain
plants total more than 16 million tons, according to an analysis by
the conservation group Environmental Defense.

V. John White of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable
Technology, which is part of an environmental consortium trying to
replace coal-fired power across the West, said Intermountain is "not
used to the light of day. They're used to having a cocktail with a
city official and renewing a deal" with no public discussion. He said
the change of heart by Southern California officials occurred because
"there was a public outcry, and it forced yes or no votes on global

He said the next challenge would be to thoughtfully consider all
available alternatives, from wind farms in the Tehachapi Mountains
north of Los Angeles to desert solar power.

Intermountain's Searle said the Utah agency worked for three years on
the renewals and now was looking at ways to modernize its plants to
bring them into compliance with California's greenhouse-gas
legislation, including burning biomass -- which includes fast-growing
trees and plants as well as waste products -- instead of coal, or
possible burial of carbon dioxide. He warned that such measures "will
be costly" to consumers.

Biomass conversion would cost about $300 million, he said, and carbon
capture and sequestration technologies would cost billions. But Searle
said the Utah plants were uniquely situated over a large salt dome
that could be ideal as an underground storage site for the gas. The
agency also extended its renewal offer for any sort of power from the
plants until 2023. The previous deadline was next May. California
utility officials hope that state legislators will allow them to renew
the contracts if greenhouse gases are reduced.

"We can't just blanket 100 miles of the desert with solar panels. And
besides, solar doesn't work at night," said David Wright, general
manager of Riverside Public Utilities. He and Burbank officials said
they were most interested in integrated gasification combined cycle
power, which creates cleaner gas and steam power from coal and could
allow CO2 to be separated and buried.

The DWP's Nahai said the fact that the current contracts don't expire
until 2027 leaves ample time.

"None of us are going to impose an economic upheaval on society, so of
course the issue of cost is tremendously important," Nahai said. "But
the question of benefits is also important... and 21 years is a long

But Wright said, "Everybody keeps saying we can replace that power in
20 years. But we don't just replace that power with a decision in 20
years. We have to decide in the next five years where we're going to
get that power, and start constructing it."


Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times