The Quick And The Dirty
A peaker power plant comes to Monterey County.
Thursday, May 3, 2001
There is no way to say no to King City''s new compact 45-megawatt power plant. Due to be online by July, it will be the profitable beneficiary of emergency measures to keep the lights on.
Often used to supply juice during peak demand periods, the tractor trailer-sized turbines known as peaker plants are part of Gov. Gray Davis'' plan to thwart power outages. Essentially jet engines that can be quickly cranked up during high energy usage hours, they also are moneymakers. They cost about $40 million to build and command high prices when they''re running--and one industry spokesperson predicts the peakers will be running continuously for a year or possibly two. Calpine, the San Jose-based energy concern, has plans to build 11 of them around the state, including the one in King City and six in Gilroy.
But critics of these machines say they are an unhealthy stopgap measure being pushed through without adequate environmental review or public input. During a lecture to students at the Monterey Institute for International Studies on Friday, Assemblymember Fred Keeley called peaker plants "very dirty" devices and a "necessary evil." He described a typical peaker plant as little more than a "jet engine strapped to...something" that sacrifices air quality for fast juice. As if that weren''t enough, he noted that peaker plant operators are "going to make a killing." (Rates being negotiated between the state and Calpine have not been released.)
Keeley''s comments came during questions after a half-hour synopsis of the California energy crisis. The Central Coast lawmaker, who has been out front on the electricity debacle, said it would have been "unthinkable" that Pacific Gas & Electric would go bankrupt five years ago. But then again, he said, we are living in "unthinkable times."
Usually the environmental review process for a project like the King City peaker plant takes a year of extensive staff assessment and public hearings. Instead of spending a full year poring over the plans, the California Energy Commission has fast-tracked the process, compressing it into 21 days. Commission spokesperson Rod Schlichting says that proposals do have to meet a checklist of requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act, but those requirements don''t carry "weight of the law."
Here in Monterey County, there has been no protest--or time for scrutiny--of the King City plant, according to the Sierra Club''s Janie Figen.
"Nothing''s been circulating and I haven''t heard from anyone with concerns," she says. That could be due to the political elimate in King City. If the proposal were for a peaker in Monterey or Carmel, she concedes, "There might be more people looking at it critically."
Bradley Angel is the executive director of Greenaction, a San Francisco-based environmental watchdog group. The organization holds that the health effects of peakers have not been studied adequately and public participation has been cast aside.
"There will be no time to truly notify the public to review the proposal or bring the public''s attention to any problems that could result in a denial of the permit," says Angel.
Indeed, fast-tracking works--and Joe Blow likes it when the TV doesn''t suddenly go blank. Keith Breskin, city manager of King City, says the energy commission held a public information hearing on April 19 about the new generator, which will be built next to an existing 115-megawatt plant. He attended the meeting and said about 20 people showed up. Nine spoke. "No one expressed any concerns about the plant," Breskin reports.
In a larger sense, Greenaction''s Angel thinks that the hurried-up installation of peaker plants and larger facilities will be the "death blow" to potential alternative sources of power like wind and solar.
Peaker plants, by contrast, are considered inefficient. They run on a single cycle, just burning gas and turning the turbine. More efficient combined cycle plants create steam with exhaust from the turbines, which in turn makes more energy.
Despite the hurried installation schedule, proponents say the new models are far more benign than older diesel-powered plants, such as those that sprang up near airports and government facilities across America during the Y2K panic.
Schlichting says the one to be installed in King City is "very, very clean." One of the potential pollutants from peaker plants is nitrogen oxide, which is described as a precursor to smog--essentially nitric acid without water. Whereas diesel generators emit 1,500 parts per million nitrogen oxides, the natural gas-powered turbine proposed for King City emits five parts per million, Schlichting says.
Still, there is little regulation of generators under 100 kilowatts, which tend to be the dirtier diesel variety. A proliferation of such machines would be disastrous. "It would certainly be a problem if everyone were using those," Schlichting says.