Power Play 

South Gate is already one of the most polluted cities in California. Does it really need a massive new electric plant?

Wednesday, Oct 4 2000
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

IT WAS THE END OF A HOT, SMOGGY SUMMER DAY in South Gate, and Wayne Gould had a tough job ahead of him. He had come to convince the locals that their small, heavily industrialized city -- already saddled with nearly two dozen state-designated toxic hot spots and a federal Superfund site -- would benefit from a massive new power plant.

In most communities, this kind of proposal would prompt a curt and resounding "no." Power plants are ugly, noisy and polluting, and South Gate already has more of that kind of industry than it can handle. But Gould, president of L.A.-based Sunlaw Energy Partners, told the 100 or so residents gathered in the civic auditorium that he had good news that went beyond the usual promises of high-paying jobs and tax money flowing to the city coffers. The plant -- to be called Nueva Azalea in a nod to both the community's Spanish-speaking population and its city flower -- would feature a revolutionary new technology his company had invented called SCONOx. With this platinum-coated catalyst installed in the plant's smokestacks, the 550-megawatt natural-gas-powered plant would, he said, be "the cleanest of its kind in the world."

Gould didn't stop there. "We believe," he said, "the air coming out of the stacks will be cleaner than the air going into the stacks." In other words, according to Gould, the 13.5-acre site just east of the 710 freeway where the plant would be built is so polluted that this soot-and-toxin-generating, fossil-fuel-burning plant will "actually clean the air."

Gould's excitement -- if not all his claims -- was warranted. It has been 13 years since the last major power plant was built in the Los Angeles area, a lag attributed to sluggish demand and oversupply. That is about to change. Spurred by the robust economy, demand for power in California has surged, and in the newly deregulated industry, private power companies are scrambling to meet the need. In recent years, however, environmental regulations have gotten a lot tougher, and prospective plants have to account for every pound of pollution that might spill out of their stacks.

For environmentalists and community advocates, the change in climate presents a dilemma, particularly with regard to the South Gate plant. On the one hand, they recognize the inequity of building such a plant in South Gate, already one of the most polluted spots in L.A., with a population that is predominantly low income, Latino and disproportionately exposed to the kind of industrial development that wouldn't stand a chance in whiter, more affluent communities. And at a time when California is experiencing an ever-worsening energy crunch, they fear the plant will be pushed through without receiving a thorough review. In the past 20 months, the California Energy Commission has received applications for nearly 9,000 megawatts of new power, more than in the previous 20 years combined. In a recent report on Nueva Azalea, the staff of the five-member commission acknowledged a "significant staffing workload problem."

On the other hand, many environmentalists have been championing the SCONOx technology as a far cleaner and less dangerous alternative to the current industry standard, which requires ammonia and has resulted in some nasty spills. They have pushed hard -- and failed -- to make SCONOx a requirement at three other new plants.

If Nueva Azalea is constructed and operates successfully, it would be the first large-scale proof that SCONOx works, and could pave the way for new, lower emissions standards that would help clean up pollution in L.A. and around the state. "If you are going to build a power plant, you should use the SCONOx equipment, or something else that works as well," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "In the case of this particular project, it's a matter of environmental justice. What are the impacts?"

DEMAND FOR ELECTRICITY IN CALIFORNIA IS GROWing at a phenomenal rate. In each quarter since December 1999, demand has increased by around 10 percent, according to Peter Morrisberg of the Oakland-based Cambridge Research Associates. Historically, when demand in California surged, the state could export from the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest to help keep the juice flowing. Not anymore.

California can usually count on 8,000 imported megawatts during the summer. This past summer, it could barely scrounge up 5,000. One megawatt provides enough power for roughly 1,000 households, meaning this shortfall alone had the potential to leave 3 million homes in the dark. The reason for the shortage was twofold. It was a bad year for hydro power in the Pacific Northwest, while Nevada and Arizona, facing huge demand spikes of their own, not only curtailed their exports, they actually imported power from the Golden State on hot summer afternoons.

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