A California Public Utilities Commission judge has ruled against a Southern California Edison proposal to refurbish a natural-gas-powered ‘peaker’ plant in Goleta that would have extended the facility’s lifespan by 30 years. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

A California Public Utilities Commission judge has ruled against a Southern California Edison proposal to refurbish a natural-gas-powered “peaker” plant in Goleta that would have extended the facility’s lifespan by 30 years.

Administrative Law Judge Regina DeAngelis wrote in a non-binding ruling that other regional power-generators can better provide the extra energy resiliency the CPUC wants for the area, and that the plant may not be the most environmentally friendly source of emergency power during a local blackout.

“The record reflects that Ellwood is a highly polluting resource permitted to emit as much as 103.59 pounds per hour of nitrogen oxide — which is over 20 times the normal emission rate of a modern peaking unit with modern emission controls,” she wrote.

The April 7 decision is intended “to give the commission additional time to explore whether any approved need in the Santa Barbara/Goleta area can be met in a manner more consistent with the Commission’s goals of reduced reliance on fossil fuel.”

The facility, which sits on the east side of Las Armas Road in western Goleta, serves as a peaker plant, meaning it kicks on when there is a peak need on the electrical power grid. 

Edison, which operates it under a short-term contract with NRG Energy, applied in 2014 to refurbish the 44-year-old combustion turbines to extend their lifespan by 30 years, to 2048.

The proposal includes a 10-year contract calling for NRG to operate the plant under Edison’s direction.

Edison spokesman Robert Laffoon-Villegas told Noozhawk that the utility company is seeking “to continue operations at the Ellwood facility to be able to provide safe electrical grid operations in the event that high-voltage transmission lines are not available to serve the greater Santa Barbara area.”

DeAngelis’ ruling, however, does not carry any force behind it; it will only become binding if the 5-member California Public Utilities Commission votes to adopt it, likely at a meeting next month.

In 2013, the CPUC asked Edison to acquire new sources of power that would add between 215 and 290 megawatts to the Moorpark sub-area by 2021. The area is a portion of a greater local-reliability area that includes southern Santa Barbara County.

Edison wanted to use the peaker plant to help meet this long-term capacity and reliability requirement, though the independent organization that oversees California’s bulk electric-power system considered it an existing source, according to DeAngelis.

Edison’s search for new sources was supposed to only include facilities that would generate that power through new or additional capacity, something the CPUC views as critical to a “level playing field among bidders.” Ellwood would not utilize what’s called “incremental capacity.”

Other approved power sources such as the upcoming Puente Project in Oxnard added up to enough power to meet the 215-290-megawatt requirement, she said.

Ellwood’s 54 megawatts would put Edison well over the 290-megawatt maximum, which was derived from the maximum costs the CPUC thinks ratepayers should be on the hook for.

Edison proposed, however, that serving the Santa Barbara and Goleta area presented unique geographic challenges to providing power during an emergency, which it said warranted the extra resiliency afforded by a refurbished peaker plant.

DeAngelis conceded that the South Coast would likely face rolling blackouts should two 230 kilovolt lines go down, but declined to examine the argument closely because it relies on a power-reliability standard not used by the CPUC and other agencies and organizations.

She called such an incident rare, and said there were likely other preferable solutions that could serve that emergency purpose.

On top of that, the plant is only permitted to operate 380 hours a year, which totals 16 full-days of power during a long blackout.

That’s not long enough, DeAngelis concluded — especially if the plant has used most or all of those hours before the 230-kilovolt lines go down.

“We further find that no reliability need justifies approval of the Ellwood contract,” DeAngelis wrote.

She also noted that many surrounding residents were not keen on keeping the at-times noisy facility around.

It isn’t certain how long the plant would last without the maintenance and equipment replacement needed to avoid decommissioning, Laffoon-Villegas said.

“As the facility started operation in 1973, it is reasonable to believe capital upgrades are necessary to extend the operational life of the Ellwood facility for any significant amount of time,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at sgoldman@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.