From the time they were constructed in the 1960s until their retirement in the mid-1990s, the pair of 500-foot-tall smokestacks at the coastal edge of Moss Landing sent plumes of smoke into the air, sometimes raining soot from the Moss Landing Power Plant onto the boats docked nearby. The towers stood as a landmark for one of the most significant sources of greenhouse gases in California.
Long since decommissioned, the smokestacks have stood more as statues while a revolution has taken place in their shadows. The plant’s natural gas-powered energy capacity has been more than halved and is now considered a “peaker plant” – called upon for additional generation only during emergency situations. The power plant was, at one time, the largest fossil fuel-sourced power plant in California. Today, it is the site of the largest battery storage project in the world – a project that is expected to nearly double in size by 2023. Next door, PG&E and Tesla unveiled a new battery storage project in April, also advertised as among the world’s largest.
Now, Texas-based Vistra Corp., owner of the plant since 2018, is preparing to dismantle the defunct jungle gym of pipes and boilers at the base of the smokestacks by next spring. The smokestacks, which today find their usefulness through orienting boat captains heading toward Monterey Bay shores, will remain.
Local officials and experts are not surprised by this sharp change in arc for Moss Landing. Even the natural gas generated at the plant is done with state-of-the-art efficiency, says Richard Stedman, executive officer of the Monterey Bay Air Resources District. Stedman says the transformation at the site has been “ironic and beautiful.”
Existing infrastructure and industrial zoning has made the area a perfect fit to pioneer utility-scale lithium-ion battery storage facilities – most critically, the high-voltage transmission lines that allow for such large-scale battery storage operation. Vistra’s existing batteries can receive and store 1,600 megawatt-hours of electricity and distribute it back to the grid at a rate of 400MW per hour. Vistra is set to expand capacity by another 1,400MWh by 2023. PG&E and Tesla’s battery facility can store up to 730MWh of electricity. A typical household uses nearly 1MWh of power per month.
When the sun is shining, there is an overabundance of renewable energy generation. Batteries today are not charged exclusively with renewable power, but without batteries, 100 percent of that extra renewable power would go unused. From 5pm to 8pm, when energy demand is highest, charged batteries decrease the need to fire up peaker power plants, which are often sourced by fossil fuels and produce dirty and expensive energy.
This makes battery storage critical to achieving a future where solar and wind power dominate. PG&E spokesperson Paul Doherty says the company has 3,300MW of new battery projects under development. Vistra, recreating the Moss Landing model, has purchased power plants in Morro Bay and Oakland for future battery projects.