The utility Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District (SRP), which has proposed expanding its natural gas-fired power plant in Pinal County, AZ, hit a regulatory roadblock for the project Tuesday with the Arizona Corporate Commission (ACC).

srp coolidge

In a 4-1 vote, the ACC denied SRP a certificate of environmental compatibility (CEC) that would authorize the start of construction to expand the 575 MW Coolidge Generating Station, located in the Southeast Valley region between Phoenix and Tucson. 

“SRP will continue to evaluate what generation and market options to pursue in the near term to address the resource challenges this decision creates for serving our customers with reliable, affordable, sustainable energy,” the utility said. “Additional updates will be provided as they become available.”

The vote rejected a recommendation by ACC’s Line Siting Committee, noted SRP, which filed its CEC application in December.

The project would add 820 MW of capacity via 16 new natural gas turbines capable of ramping up to full production within 10 minutes, complementing the facility’s 12 existing turbines, according to SRP’s website. 

Existing El Paso Natural Gas Co. LLC and TransWestern Pipeline Co. LLC pipeline systems would deliver gas to the expanded facility, noted the CEC application.

When SRP announced the project in August, CEO Mike Hummel called the expansion “a critical step in creating a reliability backbone” for the utility’s customers in the region, whose population is growing quickly.

“The added, rapid-start capacity at Coolidge will keep the lights on during times of peak electricity demand in the Valley and help support the variable output from SRP’s growing portfolio of renewable resources,” Hummel said at the time.

On the renewables front, SRP has said it plans to add 2.025 GW of utility-scale solar energy by 2025 and 400 MW of battery storage by 2023.

An ‘Unfortunate’ Action

“Because of an ideology that is bent on elimination of any energy generation from natural gas, we are taking this action here today and it’s unfortunate,” said the ACC’s Justin Olson, the lone commissioner voting for granting the CEC. “I’m concerned about what is going to be the impact to ratepayers. I’m concerned about what is going to be the impact to reliability. I’m concerned about Arizonans being able to have their air conditioning turned on during the hot summer months.”

Noting that she agreed with SRP that additional power generation capacity is needed, Commissioner Sandra Kennedy said she rejected the view that new capacity should use “a polluting fossil gas facility. This project was rushed through with an unconscionable lack of public participation.”

In explaining her vote against the CEC, Chairwoman Lea Márquez Peterson said SRP acknowledged that it did not go through an “all source” request for proposals for contracts to add power generation capacity as outlined in a 2018 integrated resource plan.

“I believe the application and evidence on the record was incomplete and insufficient for us to make an informed decision as a commission,” she said.

Commissioners Olson, Peterson and Jim O’Connor are Republicans. Kennedy and Anna Tovar are Democrats.

“As the need for additional electric generation capacity becomes more evident in Arizona with a growing economy and worsening drought conditions threatening hydropower production, Arizona’s electric grid will experience more stress as utilities strive to maintain reliable service,” CEO Dave Lock of Grand Canyon State Electric Cooperative Association Inc. (GCSECA), an organization to which SRP belongs, told NGI. 

Lock added that GSECA knows “SRP will be diligent and thoughtful about obtaining the necessary baseload resources to meet its growing customers’ energy demand, and are reminded that we’re all interconnected – in a literal sense – with this challenge.” 

SRP is also a member of the Irrigation and Electrical Districts Association of Arizona Inc. (IEDA). The organization told NGI that it – along with the Arizona Municipal Power Users Association – was “disappointed” in the vote.

“Despite SPR’s vast investment in new solar, there is still a need for new generation capacity, when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing,” said IEDA’s Ed Gerak, executive director.

He said that “little excess power” is available on the Western Grid during peak times, especially during regional heat waves that affect multiple states.

“We know what happens when there is not enough energy to meet demand – rolling blackouts like the ones experienced in California in 2020,” Gerak said. “If state leaders continue to deny strategy investments in capacity available at times of high need, like what we would have been provided by the Coolidge expansion, Arizona could be the next state to face a summer full of energy emergency alerts and the looming threat of blackouts.”

Foes of the SRP project applauded the ACC’s vote, claiming the expansion would create adverse environmental effects and negatively impact residents of a nearby economically disadvantaged community.

“The ACC’s vote today to deny the expansion of fossil-fuel use at the Coolidge generating station is a win for climate action and environmental justice in Arizona,” said Western Resources Advocates’ Adam Stafford, attorney. “Expansion of this fossil-fueled plant would increase harmful greenhouse gas emissions and disproportionately harm the nearby historically Black community of Randolph.”