Coastal commissioners urge alternative action for Redondo Beach power plant

VENTURA — A draft California Coastal Commission letter urging the California Energy Commission to consider alternative plans for AES Southland’s proposed power plant upgrade in Redondo Beach was unanimously adopted at the commission’s July 8 meeting in Ventura.

Coastal commissioners do not have the authority to determine the final fate of AES’ proposed power plant plans. However, the commission hopes its colleagues on the Energy Commission would heed its recommendation to weigh in “new information” and “changed circumstances” before green lighting a new waterfront power plant in Redondo Beach.

The AES power plant has been a divisive issue in Redondo Beach for years. Most recently, a ballot measure to convert the power plant site into a mixed-use commercial and residential development failed.

“Other existing power plant locations within the same Local Reliability Area may be suitable for the electricity generation now being proposed from the [Redondo Beach Energy Project] and could result in fewer adverse environmental impacts, including avoidance of wetland fill,” the Coastal Commission letter stated.

Tom Luster, a senior environmental scientist with the Coastal Commission, said the existing power plant will be demolished by 2020 and the new electrical yard would have a smaller foot print and not use seawater.

A major point of contention, however, was whether a salt marsh existed underneath the AES plant. Officials from AES reportedly told coastal commissioners in a letter the land where the plant currently resides is not considered wetlands. 

Bill Brand, a Redondo Beach council member who represents the district where AES’ power plant is located, countered with historic photos and drawings from the U.S. Geological Survey and Library of Congress conspicuously showing a saltwater pond where the power plant stands today.

“It’s just patently absurd for AES to claim there’s not a wetland there,” Brand said. “It’s very typical for power plants up and down the coast to find wetlands to build on. They use the ocean to cool it, pump out the wetlands [and] fill in the wetlands. No question there is a wetland there.”

Brand requested commissioners recommend the state’s Energy Commission develop alternative plans for the AES power plant site.

AES’ head of business development, Eric Pendergraft, reiterated his company did not agree the power plant is located on wetlands. He further added AES had a long history of operating at Redondo Beach’s waterfront.

“The site for the proposed Redondo Beach energy project has been used for electricity generating purposes for [more than] 100 years. The Redondo Beach energy project is located on a site that is designated by the [California Energy Commission] and the Coastal Commission as suitable for energy facility expansion,” Pendergraft told commissioners.

Pendergaft was the only speaker during public comment who spoke in favor of the proposed power plant upgrade. At least two Redondo Beach stakeholders told commissioners a power plant on the Redondo Beach waterfront was an inefficient land use.

Redondo Beach resident Gary Ost, for example, said the AES power plant was not a use consistent with the surrounding area.

“A new power plant in Redondo Beach is not coastally dependent. These are air-cooled now. These things are basically atmospheric heaters running at a tremendous rate and relate directly to sea level rise,” Ost said.

Craig Katwalter, chair of Surfrider Foundation’s South Bay Chapter, told commissioners the power plant is no longer needed across the street from King Harbor and the location would greatly benefit from increased access to the waterfront.

On the dais, Commissioner Dayna Bochco said she wished the commission could be more proactive in determining the ultimate fate of AES’s proposed power plant upgrade, but was hopeful the Energy Commission would head the Coastal Commission’s recommendations.

“There’s certainly a lot of evidence [the power plant] is not needed. I find it absolutely mind boggling that you want to build a power plant that’s not needed, and then you’re building it on the coast where you no longer need the seawater. None of this makes any sense,” said Bochco, adding there is no doubt in her mind the power plant’s land is indeed a wetland. “There are obviously changes circumstances here, which the Energy Commission, I hope, will look at in great detail. It just sounds like yet another energy project that’s going to ignore what we’re trying to accomplish on the coast, which is getting rid of these large, industrial uses if they are no longer necessary.”

The approved letter, which was dated July 8, added the planned power plant project might not conform to land use provisions described in Redondo Beach’s Local Coastal Program and could have an adverse impact on local wetlands and geological hazards such as sea level rise and tsunamis.

AES Southland seeks to build a new power plant in place of the current station directly across from King Harbor. The current plant sits on 50 acres of Redondo Beach’s coastal zone, though the Energy Commission will be considering a proposal for a 10.5-acre plant.

As currently proposed, AES’ new power plant would, according to the Coastal Commission, generate 496 megawatts of power and “include a single power block with three natural gas-fired generators, one steam turbine generator, an air-cooled condenser, and other associated equipment and facilities.”

A power plant first became operational at the AES site in 1905. Southern California Edison managed and expanded the plant between 1917 and 1998 before selling the electric-generating structure to AES.

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