First published in the Sept. 24 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.
The City Council this week delayed a decision, by a narrow margin, to commit to the Scholl Canyon biogas power plant for up to four months to facilitate city officials in locking down a number of questions and addressing other concerns.
Although discussion on Tuesday indicated that a majority of council members had at least resigned themselves to the likelihood of approving the plant, enough wished to take time to both clarify details and run a trust-building campaign for residents without quite running out the clock. The four-month window was specifically chosen to avoid bids for the project expiring and likely resulting in more expensive contracts.
Councilman Dan Brotman outlined the parameters of this work Tuesday, while Councilwoman Elen Asatryan and Mayor Ardy Kassakhian joined in agreement. Councilman Ara Najarian voted no, while Councilwoman Paula Devine abstained — both out of wanting to get the project going now rather than later.
Brotman’s proposal is to firm up the cost-benefit analysis of the project, which he conceded might change for the worse; confirm the environmental effects of gas cleanup if the plant falls through; ensure the fire evacuation plan for Glenoaks Canyon is both robust and well-communicated; ask for strong movement by Glendale Water and Power to bring solar panel projects forward; and develop a commitment by the city to not convert the biogas plant into a natural gas plant eventually.
The council aims to make a decision within four months, prior to which city officials have been tasked with the necessary research and public outreach.
The project calls to add a power generation facility to the existing industrial site at the Scholl Canyon landfill, which right now collects and flares off methane emissions from the dump per air quality regulations. This facility is estimated to cost the city around $62 million and generate a peak of around 11 megawatts of energy that would decline over 20-plus years as methane levels are exhausted. (The landfill is expected to close at the end of 2025, and organic wastes are already diverted elsewhere.) Officials say this is enough to power 11,000 homes in Glendale.
In a controversial vote last year, the council approved the conditional use permit and certified the environmental impact report for the potential plant, despite the city’s planning and sustainability commissions giving the project the thumbs-down.
Proponents of the project view it as a win for the city because it would be a locally owned source of round-the-clock power generation that would help Glendale achieve its renewable energy requirements.
“The Scholl plan will beneficially use that landfill gas,” Najarian said. “It will provide up to 11 megawatts of local energy — the important thing there is ‘local,’ that we don’t have to try and find a transmission line for it to come through. It qualifies for the renewable energy credits. It satisfies 9% of our city’s renewable obligation.”
Opponents decry the proposal as an added wildfire risk to the canyon and an industrial affront to the stated goal of converting most of the landfill into green parks and recreational space once it closes. Though the state classifies this sort of power generation as renewable, others suggest it is pragmatically nonrenewable because of the finite nature of the methane — a fact that also fuels concerns that the project is a waste of money.
“That’s not the vision that I have for this city. I think that we can do better,” Asatryan said. “I’m not sold on the financials that were presented. I think this project is fiscally irresponsible. I think it’s environmentally unfriendly and I do believe that there are health hazards for it.”
In addition to Glenoaks Canyon residents, the Glendale Environmental Coalition has stridently opposed the power plant.
“We ask you to consider better ways to use the city’s limited resources that we have community support for that won’t create very real and consequential local and regional air pollution impacts, that won’t pose fire danger, are compatible with a park-open space area and will be a much sounder investment in our clean energy feature,” said Monica Campagna, speaking for the GEC.
For what it’s worth, the city’s previous fire chief, Silvio Lanzas, as well as its new one, Tim Ernst, have both indicated their confidence in the safety of the plant. Lanzas went as far as to say the facilities would actually reduce the wildfire risk when compared to the current flaring setup, and Ernst said it was highly unlikely any fire started up there could spiral out of control.
Whatever the outcome here, city officials are at best uneasy about power generation prospects for Glendale, which has a stated goal of achieving 100% clean energy by 2035.
A solar firm this year pulled back on a bid to install enough solar panels and battery storage devices in Glendale to provide 25 megawatts of energy. The proposed repowering of the Grayson Power Plant might have lower capacity after council members compromised on that project — which is meant to be a reserve source anyway. Additionally, the city is likely maxed out for the foreseeable future on drawing additional power transmission from the outside.
Furthermore, the council earlier that day committed to updating building codes to eventually require full-electric new buildings. The city also plans to transition its entire fleet, including buses, to electric and anticipates rising electric vehicle usage among residents.
Najarian reminded the audience Tuesday that the state came to the brink of rolling blackouts this month, during the peak of the statewide heat wave.
“If we had a blackout, believe me folks, we wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “This would’ve been a done deal, all sewn up. We came that close to blackouts, to rolling blackouts. We need the power.”
Brotman, a founding member of the GEC, said this is “probably the most difficult item that I have faced” on the council and reluctantly conceded that the reality of the city’s power portfolio makes the proposal a serious option. He and Kassakhian voted against approving the permits last year, and he joined Najarian in a quixotic attempt to coax more power transmission from Los Angeles this year.
The way he ultimately frames it, Brotman explained, was considering that other sources of power the city would likely buy is certain to come from a more-polluting natural gas plant.
“I don’t relish this. I don’t like burning biogas. It’s dirty, especially the biogas that we have, with all the impurities,” Brotman said. “I just keep coming back to the same place, which is, ‘What’s the alternative? If we don’t do this, what are we doing? What are we doing with this gas?’”
With Devine and Najarian aggressively supporting the project, along with Brotman and Kassakhian’s concessionary attitudes, it’s clear the project has grown only more politically viable in the past year.
“Something has to happen to it,” Kasskahian said, referencing the methane. “It may not be what everyone wants, and trust me, no one is here relishing here about what to do with it.”