AES Huntington Beach

AES Huntington Beach, built between 1958 and 1967.

Two new AES generation facilities nested within existing Southland power plants recently started the commissioning process, and with it came a barrage of community complaints as well as some emissions violations.

AES has fielded complaints about both its Huntington Beach and Long Beach facilities from area residents upset about noise and plumes emanating from the facilities—both have new combined-cycle generating technologies coming on line. The combined-cycle facilities will function as bridging technologies as the state moves from once-through-cooling technologies toward a 60-percent-by-2030 renewables target.

The plants are located on the site of existing power plants that came on line in the late 1950s and 1960s, Stephen O'Kane, vice president of sustainability and compliance for AES Southland Energy, said. Three AES facilities—the 200-MW AES Huntington Beach Generating Station; AES Alamitos, which has a 1,200-MW capacity; and the 150-MW AES Redondo Beach—are scheduled to retire by the end of 2020. The new plant-within-a-plant facilities are being constructed at two of the three sites to meet local reliability needs, while Redondo Beach is being shuttered.

Commissioning is a lengthy process, O'Kane said, and both plants are in the early stages. The first steps occurred Oct. 3 at Alamitos and Oct. 4 at Huntington Beach. The temporary noise and emissions are "100 percent normal," he said, and result from the use of high-pressure steam for cleaning away manufacturing residues and dirt and dust that might have landed on the equipment during construction.

These processes were fully detailed in the permitting documents, save for one. "We missed a rule," O'Kane said.

Most particulate-based emissions expected during commissioning and operation were accounted for during the permitting process, and the plants each have "really strict limits." However, the permits did not account for potential visible emissions. AES exceeded the three-minute allowed window twice at both facilities, triggering a violation for each from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. O'Kane said AES immediately sought an emergency variance. Fines have yet to be assessed.

Complaints were fielded about both plants; however, AES Huntington Beach drew more attention, possibly because it is located closer to residential areas, O'Kane said. Alamitos is located in a more industrial area.

For the past nine years, O'Kane says, AES has been engaged in outreach, conducting community meetings at each stage as the projects have moved from conception through permitting and construction. Individuals who might not have been interested at one time take notice and become upset once "there is some impact to 'me at my place,'" O'Kane said. "We empathize with that. We hope the community can bear with us after the commissioning phase."

The three-month commissioning process is not yet complete. The initial firing of the turbines concluded Oct. 13, but there are new tasks to be completed in the restoration phase, including removal of temporary piping used to produce steam and certain work on turbines, which won't be fired for another two weeks. Beyond cleaning, commissioning is a methodical process during which all equipment is slowly evaluated to determine whether it works as it should. One of the final stages consists of a series of performance tests, O'Kane said.

Although the "loudest, most visible part" of commissioning has concluded, the next time the turbines are fired at both facilities, the noise and emissions will "still be above what people will be used to . . . it will be better than what they've already experienced."

O'Kane said community concerns are not limited to power plants, but typically any major project in an urban area will elicit reaction. "I think most people have real concerns," he said. Through education and outreach, including speaking to people one-on-one himself, he said, "people can come around."

AES is "trying to return every single call" and also following up with informational letters to area residents.

Although the plants are scheduled to retire by the end of 2020, they might continue operating, as the old turbine equipment still functions. AES has 20-year contracts with Southern California Edison, which is offtaking power from all three.

In September, the California Public Utilities Commission proposed a delay in once-through-cooling compliance deadlines for natural gas-fired power plants to address what could be a capacity deficit of up to 2.5 GW in 2021-2023, and said there is a need for additional energy procurement by load-serving entities in SCE's service area. SCE estimates the shortfall could be as much as 5,500 MW in 2021 (see CEM No. 1557).

The scheduled OTC retirements in Southern California add up to 3,750 MW of capacity. In addition to the three AES facilities, the OTC regulation also covers Ormond Beach Generating Station units 1 and 2, which have a combined capacity of roughly 1,500 MW.

The difference between the older and new technologies is "a significant downsize," O'Kane said. At the end of September, the three AES facilities were producing 3,710 MW using the older technologies. When the new Huntington Beach and Alamitos facilities are operational, they will produce 1,300 MW. Alamitos will also have 100-MW/four-hour battery storage on-site.

The Redondo Beach facility is currently in escrow, O'Kane said. Under the terms of the sale, should the CPUC or another state agency mandate that the plant remain in operation after 2020, AES would continue to operate it, he said.

Despite continuing uncertainty about what generation in Southern California might look like after 2020, O'Kane said there is still a need to have generation in load centers rather than moving all of it "out to the desert."

It is important to remember that "we're stuck with a 100-year-old electrical grid," O'Kane said. "We have to maintain reliability across that grid. That includes having some capacity in the load center. You can't wire everything in."

These types of new, flexible generation technologies serve California's intermediate load needs. "They fill in the gap when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow. These are not baseload [facilities]. They are not peakers. They are for anytime, up and down power."

In the post-2020 era, when the OTC plants are completely off line—barring any possible state intervention—O'Kane said the technology at the two plants will help California as it moves toward its renewable-energy goals. The goal is to "turn off the dirtiest first, hang onto the cleanest." These now-new combined-cycle plants should be the "last to be turned off," he added.

For now, "We gotta keep the lights on," O'Kane said. "I know in my heart, when it's done, it's going to be better."