Workers laboring 20 hours a day could get two mothballed AES generators running in time to meet the summer energy crunch, company officials testified Friday.
There is only one problem: That violates Huntington Beach law, which restricts construction to 13 hours a day. If the law were followed, the extra energy wouldn't be available until autumn.
That issue and environmental hurdles were presented at an evidentiary hearing in front of a key committee of the California Energy Commission, which has been ordered by Gov. Gray Davis to accelerate the approval process for energy-generating plants in an effort to rescue power-starved California.
AES Corp., California's largest private power generating company, wants the state to fast-track approval to restart two 40-year-old generators in the city. The meeting, which lasted more than seven hours, was the only evidentiary hearing planned before the committee, which is expected to issue its recommendation by March 26.
If AES wins approval, it would begin a 90-day construction period two days later. If work proceeded 20 hours a day, seven days a week, the gas-fired generators could be cranking 450 megawatts a day into the state's energy grid by mid-July, said Ed Blackford, president of AES Huntington Beach LLC.
That's enough power to serve 450,000 homes, and it represents about 10% of the additional energy Davis has promised to have available in the state by summer, when electricity use peaks.
A Huntington Beach ordinance allows construction only from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. By those rules, the generators won't be operating until September, said Blackford.
He said plant officials can look into quieter construction methods for the night hours, but couldn't guarantee that would allow the two generators to be started up quickly.
Former Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Sullivan, director of Huntington Beach Tomorrow, testified at the Friday hearing against making an exception for AES.
"Please allow our laws to be followed," he said. "It's just unacceptable if hundreds of our citizens are going to be condemned to four hours of sleep a night."
Jane James, an associate city planner, said AES would have to seek a variance, which would involve public hearings, noise studies and other analysis. However, she has never seen one issued in her 10 years with the city.
Time is of the essence: The power company would have to seek the variance before the Energy Commission rules.
The variance request would go before the City Council, which has already said it opposes the fast-track process to restart the generators. The city's formal appeal to state regulators failed, but city officials have promised to go to court.
Other concerns discussed include air and water quality, harm to marine wildlife and seismic risks.
A key concern of city officials and Energy Commission staffers is the plant's effect on water quality. UC Irvine scientist Stanley Grant has suggested that Huntington Beach's bacteria woes are caused by partially treated sewage being drawn back to shore by a combination of internal waves, the tide and the AES plant's cooling system, which uses 253 million gallons of ocean water a day. If the two generators are restarted, double that amount would be drawn in.
Energy commission staff have recommended that the plant put aside $1 million to fund ongoing studies, and the city has asked that $14 million be set aside to compensate for any environmental harm. AES has objected strongly, saying it will pay for those things when the money is needed.