By LESLIE BERKMANThe Press-Enterprise
A plan to discourage new power plants in Southern California's most polluted communities could lead to rolling blackouts in Riverside, city officials said.
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The South Coast Air Quality Management District plans could curtail city plans to build two "peaker" plants that could be used during critical times like summer heat waves when electricity consumption exceeds other available sources.
Without the additional power, "we are going to have rolling blackouts in 2009 or 2010," said David H. Wright, Riverside's public utilities general manager.
The AQMD is considering new rules that could prohibit such plants in the Riverside-San Bernardino area or force utilities and private power developers to pay more to build new ones in the region, under a pollution credit program.
The district, which regulates pollution sources in Los Angeles and Orange counties and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, is struggling to bring the region into compliance with state and federal clean air laws while allowing construction of much-needed power plants in the region.
"We are walking a tightrope," said Chino Mayor Dennis Yates, a member of the air district board and chairman of its stationary source committee. "I don't have the answer, and nobody on our committee has the answer."
In September, the air district agreed to sell pollution-mitigation credits to power plant developers to enable them to build in the four-county region. Pollution credits are created when industries shut down or clean up, resulting in emissions reductions. They can sell those credits to other companies to offset their pollution. However, such credits are scarce in Southern California.
At the urging of utilities, which were unable to find sufficient credits for sale on the open market, the air district decided to temporarily allow power plant developers to buy credits from a reserve of credits that otherwise could be used only for essential public services.
State agencies with responsibility to avert the rolling blackouts like those in the 2001 statewide energy crisis have been pushing for more power plants in Southern California.
But the ability of the district to use the reserve pollution credits has been thrown into limbo by a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups. The suit alleges that the district's action didn't adequately consider environmental consequences and violated the California Environmental Quality Act.
Air district spokesman Sam Atwood said the agency likely will postpone a hearing scheduled for next week on the proposed power-plant rules after a judge on Wednesday rejected the district's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Power plants are prime sources for fine-particle pollution, which has been linked to an array of illnesses. Because Southern California's particulate pollution is the worst in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the agency wants to limit power plants that produce it particularly in those areas.
Still, Wright said he believes it would be unfair for the air quality district to impose different mitigation costs from zone to zone. The pollution from areas to the west of Riverside are responsible for much of the city's deteriorated air quality.
"It is like the victims are being punished here," Wright said. "Our understanding of the science is the particulate matter levels in Riverside are there from the generation of particulate matter that blows from the west each afternoon."
Yates, Riverside lawyer Jane Carney and Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge, also air district board members, said Riverside and San Bernardino counties bear responsibility for the region's air pollution because of the Inland region's explosive growth in population and industry.
"The argument that it isn't them polluting is kind of weak," Yates said.
Loveridge said he supports the city's quest to build small power plants that will be used occasionally. But he said he would oppose building major generating plants in Riverside or any other highly polluted community. He also said he accepts the idea of charging more for mitigation credits to build generation plants in Riverside as long as the money is spent to alleviate pollution nearby.
The air district board, prompted by community objections to power plant development, has been trying to devise a way to discourage power plant developers from building in areas where air pollution is already concentrated.
The agency's staff has proposed six alternatives. All of them divide the region into three zones based on concentrations of fine-particle pollution, considered the most serious pollutant produced by power plants. Fine particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and have been linked to increased mortality and reduction in lung capacity.
Zone three, which includes public utilities in Riverside, Colton, Corona, Moreno Valley and Banning has the worst fine-particle pollution in the entire air district. A private company has an application pending for a new power plant in Grand Terrace.
One proposal would virtually prohibit any new gas-fired power plants in zone three by making AQMD pollution credits unavailable. Another would charge twice as much for the credits in zone three than in the least polluted zone.
At stake is whether Riverside will be able to build 96 megawatts of additional power capacity. Wright said a new plant must be built within the city because transmission lines that bring electricity from elsewhere are at full capacity. A new substation that would solve the problem won't be finished for another five to seven years.
The city's first priority is to get the two peaker plants built, Wright said. If necessary, he said, the city would agree to pay a premium. He figured Riverside might have to pay $10 million for pollution credits needed for the $100 million project. That would add 15 to 20 cents a month to the average residential bill in the city, he said.
Riverside is proposing an alternative option that would require power plant developers throughout the basin to pay equal sums for pollution credits at twice the amount already authorized, Wright said.
Colton officials, who are considering building a peaker plant, support Riverside's plan, Colton Electric Utility manager Jeannette Olko said.
The air district staff said the money raised from pollution-credit sales would help pay for clean energy and other measures to reduce pollution wherever the new plants are built in Southern California.
Reach Leslie Berkman at 951-893-2111 or lberkman@PE.com