Does Southern California need a dozen or so new gas-fired power plants -- and if it does, can it build them? No one seems to know for sure.
The region's long-term plans to generate electricity to serve a growing population and to replace decades-old dirty plants were thrown into disarray this week, when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that local authorities had failed to do the necessary environmental and health analyses.
Officials from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which encompasses Orange County and large swaths of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, warned of likely "blackouts and brownouts" if the plants are not built.
Many of the plants, such as a 914-megawatt generator sponsored by the small industrial city of Vernon, would be in low-income, crowded areas that have high rates of asthma and other pollution-related diseases. Though they would be outfitted with the latest in pollution-control technology, the gas-fired generators would emit thousands of tons of fine soot particles, which are linked to cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.
The court decision is "a victory for the health of our children," said Lucy Ramos, a Boyle Heights middle-school aide and president of Mothers of East L.A., a group that has been fighting the Vernon plant. "Our community is not a dumping ground."
The proposed plants, which include 11 in the Los Angeles Basin and two in the outlying areas of Desert Hot Springs and Victorville, would be built by private companies, which would sell the power to Southern California Edison and other utilities. But under the federal Clean Air Act, no polluting facilities can be built unless soot and chemicals are reduced elsewhere in the region through a complex system of pollution credits, also known as offsets.
Years ago, the air district set aside what it called Priority Reserve credits so that projects such as hospitals and police stations could be built even if they added to the region's pollution. Last year, the district, lobbied by a host of former politicians, decided to sell the credits to energy companies for $420 million: about half the market value, according to environmentalists' calculations.
Environmental and community groups said Wednesday that they would sue in federal court to nullify such credits.
The decision, meanwhile, left air regulators perplexed at their next move.
"What's the responsible action?" asked Barry Wallerstein, the air district's executive officer. "Should we wait until we have brownouts and blackouts to build new power plants? We need lights in our schools and power for our factories and electricity in our homes."
Wallerstein said the region needs about 2,000 megawatts of new capacity, and that sufficient offsets are unavailable on the open market.
The 32-page decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Communities for a Better Environment and other groups. In it, Judge Ann I. Jones told the air district it could not sell offsets to the plants without a fuller analysis under California's Environmental Quality Act. In particular, the judge said, the district needed to analyze exactly how many tons of pollutants, including health-damaging soot and planet-heating greenhouse gases, each proposed plant would emit.
Wallerstein said the district is unlikely to appeal the ruling. "It will be a question of whether we proceed with a new rule, or whether we throw up our hands and say, someone else should figure this out because it is beyond our control."
If the judge's concerns "are beyond our ability to address, then there will be a permanent moratorium on power plant construction in Southern California."
Environmentalists and many industry experts say that much of the region's demand can be met through conservation and renewable energy.
But no one knows how much could be supplied by wind farms, geothermal energy, solar rooftop facilities or large solar plants, many of which are proposed in fragile desert areas.
Until the 1998 electricity deregulation, the state's Energy Commission was responsible for determining needs. But later, the commission's role was largely reduced to permitting the siting of plants, leaving the market to decide how much and what kind of generation is needed.
Southern California Edison has signed long-term power purchase agreements for 2,556 megawatts of power from new gas-fired generators, including proposed plants in Walnut Creek, Calif., and El Segundo. Spokesman Gil Alexander said Wednesday that the company had not assessed the effect of the judge's decision.
"Obviously we believe new capacity is a critical energy planning issue for the region," he said.