First published in the Aug. 20 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.
Seemingly concluding that there was little other choice, a majority of the City Council on Tuesday approved engineering work to accommodate up to three modern natural gas-powered turbines to be installed at the Grayson Power Plant.
The council’s decision does not necessarily commit to the purchase and installation of the engines — that decision will come to pass in October, after bids are reviewed — but it will begin paving the way for what is more likely shaping up to be an acquisition. Councilmembers appeared motivated to start that work as soon as possible, both to help ensure new turbines are bought online in the timeliest manner and also out of caution that the price tag quickly rises.
Mayor Ardy Kassakhian, Councilmen Dan Brotman and Ara Najarian and Councilwoman Paula Devine voted in favor of the engineering work, while Councilwoman Elen Asatryan opposed. In coming around to his decision, Brotman — who entered politics as an activist with the Glendale Environmental Coalition and ran for office to curb the scale of the Grayson project — conceded that he saw no other immediate path that would ensure reliable power in Glendale.
“I think you all know the last thing I want is to preside over a decision to invest in more fossil fuels. I don’t want that. I don’t think any of us want that,” he said. “At this point, as much as I would like to believe it, I don’t think there’s a path to zero gas. I just don’t think there is.”
Brotman called for considering three turbines, manufactured by the Finnish company Wartsila, as a compromise to the initially proposed five. These turbines, which have a capacity of 18.5 megawatts apiece, are not intended to regularly run — they’re proposed as reserve power sources in the event of regular transmission failures or when demand exceeds typical generation. Grayson Unit 9, a relatively modern generator installed in around 2004, is also reserved for this use and will undergo improvements to reduce noxious fume emissions.
To be clear, no current generators at Grayson run on a routine basis and there is no plan to do so in the future. This is a markedly different proposal from when the repowering was first introduced in 2015 and called for a 262-megawatt-producing overhaul to Grayson.
“We’ve made good progress,” Brotman said. “Let’s commend ourselves for where we are today compared to where we were. It’s a lot better.”
Glendale officials broadly aim to achieve a zero-carbon-emission power portfolio by 2035 and have set several pieces in motion toward that. The city plans to acquire and install a 75-megawatt Tesla Battery Energy Storage System, or BESS, inside a rehabilitated portion of Grayson that would be charged and used daily. The Scholl Canyon Landfill is also slated to be converted into a biogas power generation station using methane emissions from the waste to generate up to 11 megawatts. The city also hopes to expand Distributed Energy Resources programming, or DER, which invites property owners to improve energy efficiency in their buildings or voluntarily allow the city to occasionally alter things like air condition settings to reduce demand during peaks.
Implementation time delays are taking their toll, however.
The price of lithium, a key component of rechargeable batteries, has spiked recently, a likely factor in the Tesla BESS price increasing 45%. Wartsila’s prices have also gone up by 27%. Worldwide inflation has set in this summer, with the Federal Reserve bumping interest rates up twice recently in efforts to reel it in. Supply chain issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic persist. DER programs have only yielded three megawatts to Glendale Water and Power. The company Sunrun, which had proposed a 25-megawatt so-called “virtual power plant” using solar panels throughout the city ultimately rescinded its contract offer.
“We were really counting on those 25 megawatts,” remarked GWP General Manager Mark Young, lamenting the loss of the Sunrun offer.
Young said Brotman’s compromise was workable and that he hoped to supplant it with increased DER participation.
“Three, we’ll make work,” he said. “I feel if we had more, we’d be more comfortable with the expansion of [electric vehicles], but I also believe with the new DER and the new technologies and things like that that we have a fighting chance of being able to be very successful.”
Asatryan’s vote against the decision Tuesday was primarily motivated by the fact that the council will review the actual bids to purchase the Wartsila engines in the coming weeks. That decision, she contended, might not line up with what engineers have started working on.
“I don’t want to waste money in starting engineering work if we are going to possibly change the number of engines,” Asatryan said.
Additionally, she argued, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act will likely have funds available for cities like Glendale to more capably transition to cleaner energy generation.
Devine acknowledged that procuring new gas turbines would run afoul of some residents, but stressed that it is vital to minimize power interruptions for a heavily commercialized city of 200,000 residents.
“We are limping along with one unit,” she said, referring to Grayson Unit 9, “and if something would go wrong with that unit and we don’t repower Grayson, then we will be subjected to blackouts because we do not have the accessibility of bringing in or transmitting energy into this city.”
In addition to this item, the council unanimously approved a litany of other items related to Grayson projects that proved noncontentious among council members, including a contract to separate functionality of Grayson Unit 9 from the other eight units that are being ripped out and a variety of other engineering services.
Brotman emphasized his support for continuing to expand zero-emission power generation as a norm and reiterated his dedication to meeting the 2035 goal. Economics and ensuring power continuity, however, make decisions less straightforward, he contended.
“Between now and then, I think we’re going to have to make some sacrifices and compromises,” Brotman said. “You would think I’m the last person to say this, but I’m a realist. I always said I wasn’t going to be ideological about it.”