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Agreement Lets Power Station Triple Output

Pollution: County officials reach a deal to let a Texas energy company exceed the permit limits at its Oxnard plant. But cleaner air is expected in the long run.


As California struggles to provide uninterrupted power, Ventura County air quality officials and a Texas-based energy company announced Friday an agreement that boosts electricity production from an Oxnard power station now with the promise of cutting smog later.

Power plants in the nation's smoggiest state are strictly regulated to fight pollution, and the controls often limit the amount of time they can operate in a given year. But power producers warn that those limits may soon force them to either curtail energy production or face penalties for violating clean-air laws.

With no end in sight for this summer's heat, the predicament is forcing regulators and energy companies to find ways to manipulate air quality rules to squeeze more juice out of generating stations up and down the coast.

In the first such agreement in the state, the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District struck a deal this week with Reliant Energy Co. to allow the Houston-based company to operate its Mandalay power station in Oxnard for up to 300 hours per year--triple the amount of production normally allowed during periods of peak demand.

The change affects eight natural gas-fired turbines at the plant used to meet peak energy demands. Together, those turbines produce 120 megawatts of electricity, enough to juice 120,000 homes.

In the short term, the deal means the power plant--one of the largest fixed sources of pollution in Ventura County--will pump more emissions into Southern California skies during the smoggiest months of the year. But in the long run, company and local air quality officials say, it will result in deeper pollution cuts from the power plant and other sources that will help restore blue skies sooner than would otherwise have been the case.

"California is running out of energy and Ventura County found a way to keep 120 megawatts on the grid and do it in a way that will lead to air quality benefits," said Richard Baldwin, air pollution officer for Ventura County.

"By allowing Reliant to operate in excess of their permit limit, California is going to have a better chance of avoiding rolling blackouts and less need for dirty diesel engines used by stand-by generators," he said.


The agreement was reached about noon July 31, and within hours the additional energy was flowing into the region's electrical grid, officials say.

California energy officials and power producers--looking for ways to avoid interruptions in power that nearly triggered blackouts around the state Wednesday--endorse the concept of easing anti-smog rules temporarily to avert a crisis.

Rob Schlichting, spokesman for the California Energy Commission, said that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has reported that its generating stations will likely exceed pollution limits. Officials at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Los Angeles area smog-fighting agency, issued notice July 22 to power producers warning they are close to exceeding their limits and will need to develop strategies to comply while continuing to produce electricity.

"It's something we are looking at in many areas around the state," Schlichting said. "It's a way of generating more power on a temporary basis than we have now. We certainly want to explore those options but weigh the air quality problems against the benefits of increased power."

In Ventura County, afternoon blackouts have shut down computers and lights at the County Government Center this week, forcing some employees to go home early.

As a cost-cutting measure, the county agreed to be cut off from Southern California Edison supplies during peak demand periods. Edison gets to use the power in other places and the county pays 20% less for electricity, a savings of $4.3 million over the life of the agreement.


Around California, energy consumption was so high this week that the state Independent System Operator, which controls the flow of electricity in 75% of the state, was at risk of initiating rotating blackouts on Wednesday. The San Francisco Bay Area experienced rotating blackouts affecting 97,000 customers on June 14.

But state and federal air quality officials caution that any agreements to produce more energy must pass muster with the national Clean Air Act. The law requires a host of regulations to ensure vehicles and businesses in dirty-air regions, such as Ventura County, comply with federal standards for healthful air.

Jerry Martin, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, said that while the agency does not want to see the power supply interrupted, any agreements to alter permit conditions for power plants need to be scrutinized to ensure they do not lead to more pollution, especially during smoggy summer months.

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