String of Cancellations Could Spell the End of New Gas Plants in California
The latest in a string of project cancellations is opening up the possibility that California will never have to build another new natural gas plant.
The latest withdrawn application comes from independent power producer Calpine, which told regulators last month it would step back from its 255-megawatt Mission Rock project along the Santa Clara River in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles.
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The May 21 missive to the California Energy Commission (CEC) “ended a years-long conflict over the permitting of the plant,” Greentech Media reports. “The Native American Chumash people opposed the plant as a disruption to a river environment that they consider sacred.”
The project “also became a test case for new fossil fuel plant development as the Golden State moves toward its legislative goal of carbon-free electricity by 2045.”
While natural gas still supplied 34% of California’s electricity as of 2017, Mission Rock is the latest in a string of cancellations, and “new gas construction there has become a rarity as market and policy headwinds intensify,” Greentech writes. “Earlier this year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti opted to retire rather than replace three coastal gas plants serving the municipal utility. Last year, Glendale’s city council paused a US$500-million gas peaker project that its municipal utility staff wanted to build, choosing instead to solicit clean energy alternatives.”
And in April, mammoth utility Southern California Edison announced a series of energy storage projects, after regulators rejected siting for its proposed Puente gas plant in the Oxnard area.
“Mission Rock did not die because regulators rejected it. That means gas plants could still win approval in California, if the state’s energy agencies do not assess applications differently as a result of the 100% clean electricity law,” Greentech notes.
“California setting this pathway toward 100% clean energy has had important and profound impacts, and it also shows the ways in which California has not been as bold,” said Earthjustice attorney Angela Johnson Meszaros, who fought the Mission Rock project on behalf of the Indigenous-led non-profit Wishtoyo Foundation. “The CEC essentially let Calpine decide if the application would continue through the process.”
But community impacts, state decarbonization targets, and project costs are all weighing ever more heavily against future gas plant projects.
“I really think we have turned the corner on building or investing in gas in California,” Meszaros said. “It’s increasingly difficult for people to say they prefer a technology that has these negative impacts.”
Evan Gillespie, Western region director at the U.S. Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said a typical 25-year amortization period for power plant investments is becoming a challenge for developers facing the state’s 2045 deadline for a 100% renewable grid. Meanwhile, clean options like solar and storage are becoming more affordable, and utilities, regulators, and advocates are gaining familiarity with the shift to a zero-carbon grid.
“We’re still a decade or two away from being able to really fully get off of gas, but it’s coming soon,” he told Greentech. “You’re not going to see any new proposals come forward at this point that are going to get serious airtime from regulators, utilities, or the public.”