A new $900 million electricity generating facility in Long Beach is nearly ready to go online, but the older, taller generators along Studebaker Road will remain standing for at least three more years.
AES Alamitos began construction in July 2017 of the new air-cooled generators on its 70 acres east of the I-405-I-605-State Highway 22 interchange, across Studebaker Road from University Park Estates and Los Cerritos Wetlands. The 1,040 megawatts of electricity the two units will generate should replace the output of the six water-cooled units on the site.
"We're well ahead of schedule," Stephen O'Kane, vice president, AES Alamitos Energy, LLC., said. "The new gas turbines are in final testing now, and that start date originally was June 1.
"We've permanently shut down the old units 1, 2, and 6… we can't get rid of them right now, though, because there are too many cross connections with units 3, 4 and 5."
Units 3, 4 and 5 are further away from Studebaker Road; units 1 and 2 are the pair near the entrance to the property. When seeking permits for the new generators, AES touted the chance to get rid of the 300-foot cooling towers on the old generators in favor of the much shorter towers on the new units.
However, O'Kane said, the demolition was not part of the approved Environmental Impact Report or the state permits. Getting rid of the towers was part of the agreement with the city of Long Beach, but there was not a specific schedule attached, he said.
The issue now is that the state has sought and received approval from the state Water Board to keep Units 3, 4 and 5 online through 2023 as backup to insure reliability of the electrical grid. They would only be used in case of a shortage, O'Kane said, but that possibility means the old units must still have the ability to generate electricity.
The Water Board has the permitting power because the move to air-cooled generators was required to eliminate use of water. The AES Alamitos plant draws water from Alamitos Bay.
When the original generators were built, the system was interconnected, with power from one generator running through transformers and other systems in other generators. Those connections could not realistically be separated, O'Kane said.
"We'll still be taking the towers down," O'Kane said, "it will just be a few more years."
A letter dated Dec. 15, 2019, from AES was sent to nearby homeowners explaining the testing and other processes to get the new generators up and running. That's when the possibility of keeping the older units standing came to light.
In that letter, AES community and public affairs manager Dalia Gomez said the California Public Utilities Commission had recommended the extension of service of several gas-powered generators, including the three at AES Alamitos. O'Kane said that since then, the certification was extended to the end of 2023.
O'Kane said there were more than 500 employees working at AES during the peak construction period, and the entire project was done without a single lost time injury. The new units could be ready for routine generation by the end of January.
At the same time, work continues on a giant electricity storage facility on the west end of the AES Alamitos property. That battery-based system will be able to produce 400 megawatt-hours when fully charged, meaning it can discharge at a rate of 100 megawatts for four hours. That's enough to supply more than 66,000 homes for those four hours.
O'Kane said the completion target for that facility is the end of 2020.
Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.