LA's water and power commissioners have approved a plan to end the city's use of energy produced by coal within 12 years.
Commissioners voted unanimously to modify a contract for power from the Intermountain Power Plant in Utah. New terms will enable the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to stop relying on coal-fired power no later than 2025.
The modifications to the contract with Intermountain require permitting and construction of a combined-cycle natural gas plant to begin no later than January 1, 2020. The new plant would send power to L.A. down existing transmission lines. Officials say there's no immediate plan to seek additional funding for such a project, and the plan provides flexibility: the DWP could choose an alternative technology, as long as it complies with state and federal law.
The utility’s contract with a second plant – the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona – will end no later than 2019.
DWP General Manager Ron Nichols says getting off of coal is a smart play economically and environmentally.
"We're excited about making this kind of change," said Nichols. "We’re excited about being a positive example that I think others can follow."
Changing the contract with Intermountain was a complicated proposition, since DWP is only one of its customers. The utility had to build buy-in for eliminating coal among other California utilities and dozens of interested parties in Utah. Nichols says that took a lot of work.
"It’s not just an action that we could take unilaterally. There’s been an incredible amount of negotiations, working with other parties to get everybody on the same page to move forward."
L.A. relies on coal more than other major American cities. Together the Navajo and IPP plants provide around 39 percent of the DWP’s energy. IPP alone provides more than one-fourth of LA's supplies.
LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa initially set twin goals, to achieve 20 percent renewable energy in the city’s mix by 2010, and to get LA off of coal by 2020.
The city has reached the 20 percent renewables goal. Villaraigosa recently moved the target to quit coal back to 2025. The DWP commissioners' decision moves the city one step closer to that goal.
The Los Angeles City Council must still grant final approval to the water and power commissioners’ decision.
No other major U.S. city is reducing its carbon emissions as much or as quickly as Los Angeles. In an interview with KPCC, Villaraigosa praised the DWP's work in this area.
“This is something we've been working on for years,” Villaraigosa said. “It was very difficult. But I think over time, people can see the writing on the wall. The issue of climate change is one of the preeminent issues of our time.”
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, have long pressed the utility to divest itself of coal. Coal combustion sends toxic metals and substances hazardous to human health into the air. It also creates greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
Energy from coal has long served as relatively cheap "base load" power for Los Angeles. As DWP has increased its use of renewable energy, utility officials have warned that it's important to maintain reliable energy sources in the mix to avoid outages and prepare for emergencies.
DWP says ending the use of coal means the utility will invest in energy efficiency, "demand response" (such as smart meters and dynamic pricing), renewable energy, and some level of energy production fueled by natural gas.
The DWP’s action on Tuesday won high praise from environmentalists. "Three years ago I would have bet against this day happening today," said Kristen Eberhard of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Sierra Club’s Evan Gillespie likes that quitting coal will bring L.A.’s greenhouse gas emissions 60 percent below 1990 levels.
"That’s a benchmark for strong climate action," said Gillespie. "And in fact at this point no utility in the country is moving farther and faster than LADWP and it’s because we’re ditching coal."
Environmental groups aren’t the only ones pleased by the vote. President Bill Clinton has sent his congratulations. And former Vice President Al Gore will join Villaraigosa and DWP leaders in a public celebration of L.A.’s coal-free future on Friday.
This story was updated at 5:33 p.m. March 19, 2013