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Experts Doubtful About Rush to Build Small Power Plants

Energy: State wants 'peaker' units to fill 40% of summer gap. But various factors make that seem unlikely.

April 15, 2001|TIM REITERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Gray Davis has mobilized state government and invited developers to put dozens of small "peaker" power plants online "at warp speed" to help avert blackouts this summer.

But, as California races against time, industry experts say the logistics and uncertainties of power plant construction make it doubtful the state will have as much peaker electricity as it is seeking:

Generating turbines--which resemble giant jet engines--are in tight supply. Design, engineering, construction and testing take several months. And community opposition is sometimes a concern because the plants can be noisy and add to air pollution.

Without knowing how much people will conserve, state officials estimate the summer energy shortage at about 5,000 megawatts--enough to serve 3.7 million homes. They are counting on emergency peaking plants, usually providing 50 to 100 megawatts each, to make up about 40% of that shortfall.

But records and interviews with energy experts, state officials and potential plant developers show that:

* A contracting program the state hopes will bring in about 1,100 megawatts of peaking power has been stalled for weeks. Officials are still negotiating with about 10 developers and are uncertain how much power will be available for summer.

* An effort begun last year to issue plant permits within four months led to approval of only one 50-megawatt plant at San Francisco International Airport. Officials there say the deal is collapsing. Half a dozen other plant applications were withdrawn due to site problems, including pollution.

* The state's new accelerated 21-day permit approval program is far from meeting Davis' goal of getting plants capable of producing an additional 1,000 megawatts in operation for the summer.

The California Energy Commission approved two projects, and five more are being reviewed, for a total of about 500 megawatts. State officials concede that not all the power will be available the entire summer because developers have until Sept. 30--after summer ends--to get plants online.

During a recent workshop to promote the construction of peaker plants, Roger Johnson of the energy commission said the panel is tracking an additional 900 megawatts worth of plant proposals that developers are expected to file in April.

"It is possible we can meet the goal," he said, adding that Southern California Edison has 20 requests for new power plant hookups totaling an additional 1,665 megawatts.

Can those proposed Southern California plants, most of them designed to run during times of peak electricity demand, be ready for the summer?

"We don't think so," said Ronald D. Nunnally, director of federal regulation and contracts in Edison's transmission and distribution unit. "There's a lot of hurdles. . . . A workshop [like this] would be more useful for next summer.

"Anything not in the process now has [only] a remote chance of being online this summer," he said in a remark echoed by a number of plant developers. "Chances are slim."

'People Can't Seem to Move'

The state reserved a cavernous auditorium at an Ontario hotel March 29 for what was billed as a workshop and "energy fair." About 50 potential developers, consultants and sellers of power turbines attended. And many, while praising the state's efforts to encourage deal-making and streamline permitting, had no deals on the horizon, let alone in the works.

"People can't seem to move," said Los Angeles consultant and developer Bob Hoffman, who attended the conference to sell a Japanese turbine that could power a peaker plant. "I talked to people with great projects. It doesn't seem to be congealing."

After two weeks on the California market, the turbine was later sold for use in a plant in Nigeria.

To encourage plant development, the state has compressed the permit process. It has offered to quickly contract to purchase power. It has helped prospective developers find smog credits, which allow them to emit air pollutants for a price per ton. And it has enlisted major utilities in quickly hooking up proposed plants to natural gas lines that fuel them and to the grid that carries electricity to users.

"Nobody has ever moved this rapidly, still being mindful of all environmental standards, to put power online," Davis told The Times' editorial board Friday.

The energy commission has also developed a list of potential peaker plant sites that have a minimum of two acres and proximity to gas and electricity infrastructure.

The commission identified the San Francisco Bay Area, parts of the Central Valley and San Diego as the regions most in need of peaking power plants, but said the Los Angeles region could also benefit.

Thirty-two sites with a potential for producing 1,700 to 3,400 megawatts of peaking power passed the initial screening for suitability, according to a Feb. 21 report. They ranged from a soap factory in Sacramento County and a paper mill in Ontario to the former Ft. Ord army base near Monterey and the Pitchess Honor Ranch in Los Angeles County.

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