First published in the Feb. 11 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.
By Alexandra Applegate
The Scholl Canyon Landfill will soon be transformed into a temporary source of renewable energy for Glendale, expected to generate as much as 11 megawatts of biogas that would decline over time for two decades.
The Glendale City Council voted 4-1 to approve the project during a regular meeting on Jan. 24. The decision comes after years of delays and contentious debates over potential health and safety risks as well as environmental concerns.
The project calls for installing four Jenbacher gas engine generators for $66.7 million at the Scholl Canyon Landfill, and be maintained for an estimated $2.5 million a year.
Glendale Water & Power general manager Mark Young said being able to utilize a local energy source makes this project a necessity.
“Local generation is not dependent on transmission, which is the most important part of this project,” Young said. “We’re transmission-deficient and this will provide us with almost 9% of our load based in Glendale, using an existing asset that we have.”
Though the city passed a resolution to transition completely to clean energy by 2035, opponents see the biogas project as counteractive because it will burn fossil fuels and it is coming from a finite source. As the landfill’s methane runs out, the engines will be taken offline one by one. By 2042, it’s estimated there will only be two engines running, producing around 6 MW of power.
“Is this going to be a good decision? Certainly not a great one,” said Mayor Ardy Kassakhian. “But it’s a decision that, unfortunately, we have to make to ensure the viability of future generations in this city.”
Currently, the city is taking the toxic gases such as methane produced by the landfill and safely flaring it into the atmosphere in accordance with air quality regulations. The landfill will close once it reaches its fill level, projected to be in 2025. The new engines will convert those gases into natural gas that will be used to power 11,000 Glendale homes, according to the city’s estimate, once it is completed in two years.
While the power won’t come from a clean source, it is considered renewable energy because it’s utilizing energy that would otherwise be lost into the air.
Converting methane into natural gas does result in more greenhouse gas emissions than flaring it. But Councilman Daniel Brotman noted the city will have to burn fossil fuels, for the time being, to ensure Glendale meets its demand and doesn’t risk rolling blackouts.
“We still have fossil fuels in our portfolio and we will for another decade,” Brotman said. “We can build out and we will build out a lot of solar, batteries and distributed energy resources. But we can’t do that today. This helps reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we burn over the next decade.”
Councilwoman Elen Astrayan was the only dissenting vote, joining GEC in pushing the city to focus on building out its local solar capacity to meet the rising energy demand.
“I understand this is difficult but this project is still not part of the vision I see for our city,” Astrayan said. “I hope that we truly make a commitment to solar moving forward.”
The other council members begrudgingly voted for the project, not wanting to put the city at risk of blackouts while the utility ramps up its solar capacities.
Glendale faces an extraneous set of circumstances when it comes to sourcing energy. The city must secure locally sourced energy for its residents because it does not have enough transmission capacity on power lines to bring in energy from outside the Los Angeles basin. And a wildfire could cut off those lines completely, leaving Glendale in the dark during times of peak demand if it does not produce energy within its city limits.
Generating local power has become increasingly necessary as city staff and the City Council try to secure enough to transition to clean energy while also avoiding blackouts.
Climate change is bringing more frequent extreme heat, increasing the demand for energy to power homes and run air conditioners. And the city now requires all new buildings to be powered by renewable electricity and is transitioning its fleet to all-electric vehicles.
But city officials still need to find ways to provide enough energy to support this further electrification.
A solar firm pulled its bid last year to install a virtual power plant that would have provided 25 MW of energy. And GWP also sought outside proposals from contractors last year who could identify a way to secure up to 50 MW of reliable and clean energy in the city with some disappointment. The two qualified bids only identified a possible total of 16 MW of energy.
The Scholl Biogas project was delayed last September to address concerns from residents and the Glendale Environmental Coalition (GEC). The city staff was tasked with assuring the City Council that the project would not put the Glenoaks Canyon neighborhood at a higher risk for wildfires and committing to not developing the biogas into a natural gas plant in the future.
The coalition has long adamantly opposed the project. On top of coalition members’ concerns is that they claim it is a waste to spend more than $100 million for a project with a limited timeline.
“GEC has always urged City Council to invest in clean, zero-carbon emitting solutions such as solar and batteries before millions are spent on a biogas power plant,” said GEC in a statement after the vote. “Solar and storage will last longer, be more environmentally sustainable and cost less while providing a local source of energy.”
“We have to find the balance between climate change and our clean energy commitment and the challenges of delivering reliable and affordable energy to our residents,” said Councilwoman Paula Devine.
IN SEARCH OF SOLAR
Councilmembers also asked GWP in September to put forth a more concrete plan on how they would focus on installing solar panels throughout the city. This vote renewed calls from every member of the council as well as many community members for the city to more aggressively pursue solar as part of its portfolio.
GWP said it identified 64 potential sites for carport, rooftop and ground mount installations that would produce anywhere from 200 kilowatts to 1 MW of power. The utility is working with a contractor to develop technical specifications and conceptual designs for each of the installation options. It will also consider how to install a solar park on top of the Scholl Canyon Landfill once it closes.
Young acknowledged solar projects may not be coming online as fast as people expect. He explained the utility has to change the way energy is collected and distributed from a number of different spots where solar panels will be installed. But he anticipates coming to the council with a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a contractor to install these projects in March.
The city has also passed a resolution to see 10% solar and storage adoption across the city by 2027. City Manager Roubik Golanian said the staff is working on ways to offer incentives for residents to put solar on their homes and will likely be presenting a plan to the council in May.
Despite much of this progress, Brotman pointed out there are still no concrete plans to assure Glendale reaches its goal of 100% clean energy by 2035.
“We have to make real, rapid progress on these things in a way we never have before,” Brotman said. “I’m counting on that and that’s my commitment to the community that I’m going to fight like hell for that.”