Heat wave leaves questions about Redondo power plant

A drone's-eye-view of the AES Redondo Power Plant. File photo

by Garth Meyer

As the heat wave lifted from Redondo Beach in recent days, questions remained about the city’s waterfront power plant, still active for situations such as this.

The AES generator contributed to the state grid during the surge in demand, though it was limited due to mechanical problems. 

The heat wave arrived just after plant owner Leo Pustilnikov filed a preliminary proposal to develop the 54-acre site once it is decommissioned. If and when that is. The date is currently set for December 2023, though doubts have increased that it will stand.

The California Independent System Operator (ISO), which runs the state’s electric grid, made an order two weeks ago: every generator available in California needed to start up and be running by Sept. 5, because of record-high temperatures and record-high electricity demand.

That meant the AES in Redondo Beach was called on at major capacity. 

“As an older generator, the Redondo Beach units are not used as often as newer, more efficient generators, but it is a critical resource to help meet the demand for electricity during heat waves like we just experienced,” said Anne F. Gonzalez, senior public information officer for California ISO. “The Redondo Beach units are also critical when there are unexpected transmission system outages due to fires or other (unanticipated) events.”

The sea water-cooled AES plant operates 60-90 days per year at limited capacity. During the heat wave, it reached 80 percent capacity, said Pustilnikov, with a partial shutdown at one of the individual plants inside the Redondo complex, caused by a pump problem and a boiler tube leak. 

“It’s almost never at 100 percent,” Pustilnikov said last week. “Even in these last few days, they didn’t need it at full capacity.”

But if the plant did not have mechanical issues, would it have been at 100 percent?

“Yeah, probably,” he said. 

While the plant remains operational, it is not in its optimum state. 

“All of these power plants are kept in the short term,” said Pustilnikov. “You’re fixing as little as possible. No need to replace (an engine) when the plant may not be working in ‘24 or ‘25.”

Mandates

AES Redondo was one of a few California fossil-fuel plants that partially broke down or could only produce limited energy for days during the heat wave. 

All the while, the state moves toward its 2045 mandate to get all its electricity from renewable or non-carbon sources. Moreso, overall demand for this power is forecast to increase because of more electric home appliances and electric cars, as estimated by the California Energy Commission. 

So is the Redondo plant going to be decommissioned any time soon? 

AES Redondo is one of four coastal plants that was set to close in 2020, but were extended first for one year, then two more. Each serves as a backup to help the state avoid power blackouts, when there may not be enough (stored) renewable energy available to run air conditioners. 

“The energy agencies in California agreed to retire these units in Redondo, some of which are almost 70 years old, way back in 2010,” said Mayor Bill Brand, referring to the first, 10-year endpoint. “No one wants the power to go out for even a short time, but hopefully they will not be extended beyond their new retirement deadline at the end of 2023.”

Best-laid plans

In August, Pustilnikov submitted plans to build thousands of housing units on the 54-acre AES site, an office complex, hotel, grocery store and more.

The proposal, met with skepticism or condemnation from the Redondo Beach city council, may not happen for legal reasons, zoning reasons, public-opinion reasons or business reasons.

Pustilnikov is paid $28 million per year by the state to keep the plant operational in case it’s needed.

Mayor Brand and many city residents have said – through votes – that they want the plant to become parkland. 

“If I don’t have entitlement, if I don’t have approved (development) plans, I’m not decommissioning anything,” Pustilnikov said.

The state first would have to make a decision to decommission the plant. 

“It’s going to sit there,” Pustilnikov said. “We’ll have a power plant that’s turned off. It will remain an eyesore. It’ll sit there vacant. What’s the alternative? I’m better off keeping it as is. The city is doing it to themselves, without even realizing it. They’re gonna build a park on my property? Am I gonna build a park on your house? There are no voices of reason in the city.” 

The four coastal plants could be renewed again because of legislation signed in June by Governor Newsom that makes it easier for the state to buy electricity from diesel generators and gas-powered plants like AES. 

(The bill also gives more leverage for the state to approve wind and solar farms over objections from local governments).

In addition, a 2020 Newsom executive order is in effect that by 2035, all new cars sold in California must be capable of charging on electricity or running on hydrogen.

AES Redondo produces this electricity.

So with statewide demand set to increase, and the City of Redondo Beach seemingly against Pustilnikov’s development proposals, is he better off as a businessman if things remain as they are?

“Time will tell,” he said. ER

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