Plan to shift Scattergood power station to hydrogen is delayed by LA City Council committee

The Los Angeles City Council’s energy committee on Thursday, Sept. 15, punted on a key decision over whether to move forward on an $800 million plan that would gradually shift the power source at Scattergood Generating Station in Playa del Rey from natural gas to “green” hydrogen.

The chair of the energy committee, Mitch O’Farrell, proposed delaying the vote to Oct. 5, saying “extra time is needed” to consider the plan.

“I think we could all gain, in a more conclusive way, answers to some of the questions that some of the callers raised,” he said, referring to members of the public who weighed in on Thursday.

The energy committee was considering an ordinance to give the Department of Water and Power board the power to award and negotiate contracts under a so-called design-build process — based on a single point of responsibility that theoretically reduces risks and overall costs. The department also says this process is needed because the project is complex.

The DWP needs approval from the City Council to move forward with the contract-awarding process, which DWP officials say would streamline the project and help the department meet deadlines.

But the use of hydrogen power at Scattergood faces opposition from several environmental groups. Representatives of the Sierra Club, Heal the Bay, and Food & Water Watch argue that many questions have not been answered regarding the safety and effectiveness of hydrogen power technology, including whether the city’s plan to make Scattergood more “green” is ready.

City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents the district that includes the power plant, submitted a letter to the committee this week raising concerns about the project.

DWP officials have been pushing to put the plan on a fast track in hopes that the department can launch an environmental review process in the spring and complete the project by 2029.

Utility officials point to the city’s plan to go carbon-free by 2035, part of the LA 100 initiative. They also hope to meet a 2029 deadline for ending use of ocean water to cool down Scattergood’s power-generating operations, turning instead to hydrogen electricity to meet that commitment.

Jasmin Vargas, a senior organizer with Food & Water Watch, called the hydrogen plan being championed by the public utility a “false solution,” arguing that Los Angeles’s energy supply would still come from fossil fuel and natural gas sources.

She told the committee that the plan “has been touted and supported by the likes of Chevron and SoCal Gas.”

“We have a responsibility to call out these propositions,” that she said would extend “the life of the gas plant and … our use of fossil fuels, gas.”

Some groups called for closing the power plant, one of four that operate in the Los Angeles Basin. In 2019, city leaders said they would decommission the gas-fired plant and two others in the basin, replacing them with clean energy and other ways to meet energy needs.

But DWP officials said the power plants are needed to meet energy demands — especially in extreme weather conditions such as the recent heat wave and during wildfires.

Supporters of the DWP plan argue that the plan to use hydrogen power has been studied enough and that getting that plant up and running is necessary to meet demand, as more Angelenos switch to electric power, such as electric-powered cars.

Martin Marrufo from IBEW Local 18, a union for DWP workers, argued in favor of moving forward with the hydrogen power plant proposal, saying that it has been studied “for a long time. This is not something we’re rushing into. This is something that we need to do to progress our renewable needs.”

He pointed to a rising demand due to the electrification of vehicles and buildings.

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The current proposal would power Scattergood using a mix of hydrogen and natural gas, the latter likely providing most of power generated. DWP officials aim to start off with 70% natural gas and 30% hydrogen, and would work to reach a higher level of hydrogen in the years after the project is completed.

Most hydrogen energy being produced now is derived from fossil fuel processes, with advances being developed to produce green hydrogen through renewable sources such as solar and wind. When burned, green hydrogen would still produce NOx, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, and at a higher level than methane, also known as natural gas.

As to the readiness of green hydrogen energy, “We have some answers to some of these questions today, but we have some parts of this that we don’t know yet,” said Jason Rondou, DWP’s director of resource planning, development and programs.

He said the department is “extraordinarily fortunate” that the need is recognized by the federal government, and the department could potentially tap into $9.5 billion in federal funding from the recent infrastructure bill, allocated toward developing green hydrogen.

Environmental groups opposing the project want the utility to shift its focus to distributed energy sources that include “flex days” — which they say played a role in preventing outages during the recent heat wave and are part of a strategy known as “demand response.” Those groups also advocate for renewable energy sites around the city, such as solar installations.

Environmental groups argue that the ordinance, if enacted, would reduce the public’s ability to review and weigh in on the issues.

If the city council approves the ordinance, authorizing a design-build process for awarding contracts, the issue would go back to the DWP commission, where there is strong support for the hydrogen power plan.

DWP board members last month expressed support for the hydrogen plan, including board president Cynthia McClain-Hill and board member Nicole Neeman Brady.

McClain-Hill said, “I know that not everyone is happy or trusting of this particular course of action, but I certainly — like commissioner Commissioner (Nicole) Neeman Brady — both supportive and very interested in moving forward as expeditiously as possible, and have been quite impressed with lessons learned, and with the way in which we are seeking to at least be responsive to stakeholders and all perspectives. So look forward to seeing things move back to us for action.”