First published in the Feb. 19 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
By Jonathan Williams
The City Council finally voted to certify the environmental impact report and Grayson Repowering Project after a tense six-hour discussion among council members, the public and staff to build potentially the last gas-burning power plant in the state.
Voting after midnight on what had become Wednesday, the Council approved the Glendale Water and Power’s recommendation to pass “Alternative Seven,” a nearly $400 million project that would be the largest infrastructure plan the city has ever taken on, according to City Manager Roubik Golanian. It would add five fossil fuel burning combustion engines producing up to 93 megawatts to the Grayson Power Plant and 75 megawatts of battery storage from Tesla. The project will upgrade antiquated systems at the facility with newer technology to meet climate regulations, a decision that comes on the heels of the council’s approval in November for a BioGas facility at the Scholl Canyon landfill.
“The consequences of delaying this agreement … are in cost, construction, bonds, timing. Staff has done an extreme amount of work, an extreme amount of research. You’ve seen their graphs, you’ve seen their numbers. They’ve proven the amount of generation we need is with five units. I just don’t understand why we need more time,” Mayor Paula Devine said, as she pushed the issue along, ultimately forcing a vote despite other council members favoring a discussion on making modifications. “We have a project before us. We have climate change. There are two questions I think we have to ask: What is the best way to confront climate change while keeping the lights on and do we need to keep investing in gas a little longer to make it all work?”
The repowering project first met resistance in 2018 when the City Council rejected a proposed 262 megawatt, fossil fuel burning facility following protests from environmental groups such as the Glendale Environmental Coalition and the Sierra Club, along with Glendale residents.
This updated version is largely seen by proponents as a compromise, with the “alternative seven” plan nearly a third of the size proposed four years ago.
Still, environmentalists urged an even steeper reduction to the fossil fuel output at the plant, arguing that fast-moving advances in green technology nearly guarantee cleaner power alternatives in the near future.
On Tuesday, more than 60 individuals called in for public comment and shared from both sides of the issue. The number of calls grew until Devine limited public comment to one hour. Each caller had roughly a minute to share their thoughts on the project and this was followed by presentations from the GEC along with EarthJustice.
Longtime Glendale resident Mike Webster, who said he has worked in the utility industry for 40 years, stressed the emphasis on a reliable system for its residents.
“You can’t fight physics,” Webster said. “I think the Glendale management and engineers have put together a good proposal to balance reliability, to balance sustainability with their battery storage and solar proposal and also are proposing a relatively cost-effective solution. So I support the proposal as the management has made this evening.”
In contrast, Adams Hill resident Patrick Diamond urged the City Council not to pass the proposal in its current form due to the steady decline in cost of green energy systems over the past decades.
“Why risk spending hundreds of millions on gas power that will likely be obsolete in the near future?” Diamond said. “It seems like a huge waste of money that will be a major setback in our fight against climate change. Wouldn’t we be better off reassessing over the next few years while we demolish the current site? As a member of the community, who is ultimately going to pay for this … please don’t let fear drive this decision.”
City staff had been instructed to study alternatives for the proposal. Officials from the city and GWP such as General Manager Mark Young presented the plan to the council. Young said GWP must ensure reliability for its residents.
Devine stressed how many years staff has worked on the project and that the council has waited ample time for input and discussion. Additionally, she emphasized that the project will not affect Glendale residents’ monthly power bill. She added that City Council will do everything in its power to continue to pursue clean energy options and she intends to meet with the GEC after the council took the vote to discuss a path forward.
“I’m not going to vote for stalling or delaying the Wärtsilä deal,” Devine continued, “I think we have the proof. We have the numbers. We have everything we need to make this decision. I’m all for certifying the final environmental impact report. I’m in favor of alternative seven and I’m in favor of the demolition [to make way for the upgrades].”
Councilman Dan Brotman gave a detailed motion to modify the project with several changes — such as proceeding with all the preparation for the Grayson plan in order to avoid potential delays, while the council, meanwhile, continued to discuss whether the city really needed all five fossil fuel units, manufactured by Wärtsilä.
“I’d like to find a middle ground here,” Brotman said, agreeing that the vote was necessary to avoid costly delays.
Brotman proposed the city begin preparation so they can add the fossil fuel burning units by the end of 2022 and, if necessary, install the 75-megawatt Tesla battery system and acquire all the necessary permits before installing up to five engines at the facility.
He added he’d like to see staff procure up to 50 megawatts of distributed energy resources and emerging, green energy technologies.
Dave Tateosian, principal at Clean Power Consulting Partners, was on hand to answer questions from the council and noted that any delays could potentially jeopardize the project’s completion by 2025.
Councilman Ara Najarian was intrigued to hear Tateosian’s comments on the possible outcome if the five engines were delayed.
“I think given what you’re talking about though,” said Tateosian, “the discussions with Wärtsilä would come to a halt. There’s no point in continuing negotiation when we don’t know how many engines … I think it’s a reasonable expectation that the cost would increase.”
After some debate, Councilman Vrej Agajanian suggested the council come back in two weeks to continue the discussion. As roll call began, Agajanian filed a motion to approve the FEIR and the proposal rather than the modified version suggested by Brotman after the city attorney, Michael Garcia, suggested to the council they take a vote.
Devine seconded the motion with haste and the council voted 3-2 to approve the FEIR along with the project. Both Brotman and Councilman Ardy Kassakhian voted no.
“I’m confused now,” Brotman said. “My motion was for a modified alternative seven and the council just voted on alternative seven.”
This led council to create an agenda item in two weeks on March 1 to address some of Brotman’s proposed modifications, such as delaying the construction of the fossil fuel burning units, which could still be passed as an amendment to this week’s vote. Najarian urged the council to do so, and the other members agreed.
The City Council will next meet on March 1 at 6 p.m.
ENVIRONMENTALISTS PRESS AHEAD
After the council voted on the issue, the GEC sent an email out to all of its members on Thursday stating, “The Glendale City Council vote was 3-2 on Tuesday night for five gas-burning engines at Grayson, but there’s a twist, and the fight isn’t over!”
The GEC has battled this issue with Glendale Water and Power for several years along with some other groups like the Sierra Club and EarthJustice.
Members of the GEC like Monica Campagna, Jane Potelle and Elise Kalfayan expressed their concerns with the council’s decision to approve the alternative without a chance to amend it on Tuesday.
“It’s very frustrating,” Campagna said. “We were almost there, it could’ve happened … it did appear to me as well that the city attorney and the mayor were really pushing things in another direction and that’s where it went. Now we have to come back and see if we can change something that’s already been voted on.”
After reviewing the meeting a second time, Kalfayan said it appeared that Devine forced the vote when Brotman was on the cusp of making a motion to modify the proposal.
“When it came time to do that, it did seem like there was some procedural maneuvering to sort of get around that and that was extremely unfortunate,” Kalfayan said. “Yes, it seemed like procedural maneuvering by the mayor and the city attorney.”
She added how late the meeting went and highlighted that Agajanian kept asking for the meeting to be postponed.
“There were a lot of opportunities where the path could’ve gone differently,” Potelle said. “Unfortunately, it seemed like the mayor wanted things to go in a particular direction despite what else was happening on council.”
The GEC endorsed Devine during her campaign in 2020 and she was one of the main opponents of the project in 2018 — which was substantially different from the now-approved one — when she was serving on the City Council. Other issues like the cost to the residents of Glendale if city council delays the decision, the impact to the construction of the project and the city of Los Angeles enforcement of power reserves were discussed.
Campagna mentioned she would like to keep a positive outlook on the agenda item scheduled for March 1, but is reluctant to believe the City Council’s motives to push to 100% renewables.
“We want to stay positive because we do think there’s a chance that things still could have a better outcome,” Campagna said. “We are frustrated with the way GWP dismissed all of the things that we tried to propose. We know that was disingenuous … they never were serious about trying to find a way off the 93 megawatts. That’s what it felt like.”
Campagna, along with Potelle and Kalfayan, are pushing the city to make serious efforts to confront the climate issue and to be held accountable to the residents of Glendale.
“These kinds of energy generation choices have to happen locally,” Potelle said. “Because it’s too large of an infrastructure to [make] change overnight. I think this is a great example of residents showing up and asking for this kind of change in hopes that their local government leaders will support them.”