California regulators last week took action that longer term could lower natural gas demand in a state with a 5 Bcf/d appetite by approving a less gas-dependent long-term plan for Southern California Edison Co.’s (SCE) future sources of electricity and launching a rulemaking to examine how to integrate biomethane into the state’s extensive gas pipeline grid.

The decisions come in the face of a regulatory decision to ban once-through-cooling (OTC), as well as the possibility of a long-term shutdown at SCE’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Songs), which has been idled for more than a year. The biogas rulemaking is a mandate from a new state law (AB 1900).

The new law calls for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to adopt safety standards for injecting biomethane into common carrier gas intrastate pipelines and to adopt rules allowing pipeline access by biogas producers.

In the SCE decision, the CPUC still relies on a certain amount of gas-fired generation, particularly in the transmission-constrained Los Angeles Basin, but it emphasized that SCE use “preferred resources” — efficiency, conservation and renewables.

CPUC President Michael Peevey said the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) is “nervous” about moving from gas-fired generation in Southern California when there is uncertainty about the future of the 2,200 MW Songs facility.

Commissioner Mike Florio said gas was still the “most reliable, flexible and dependable resource” for power generation, and SCE would need to rely on a certain amount, although substantially below historic levels.

There is currently about 4,900 MW of gas-fired generation in the Los Angeles Basin, and the plan approved by the CPUC calls for that amount decreasing to 1,200 MW. In Ventura County, 2,000 MW of gas-fired power will drop to 290 MW by the early 2020s when the state’s OTC ban fully kicks in to use sea water cooling at a string of coastal gas-fired generation plants.

With the state’s renewable goal hitting 33% in 2020, Florio said it was essential that the preferred resources be emphasized. Peevey went further by saying it was time for the state to “push the envelope and move to a greener energy mix.”

All five CPUC commissioners recognized that the decision was only a first step. As soon as CAISO completes a study of what to do given the Songs uncertainty, the CPUC would begin another phase of an ongoing proceeding regarding long-term power resource needs.

Commissioner Carla Peterman noted that one option is using more biomethane gas. Calling it “cow power” because a large source of biogas is the manure-based methane from dairy farms, Florio said the energy resource has 20 times less of a carbon footprint than natural gas but officials have “had trouble making it a reality.”

Commissioner Catherine Sandoval predicted that the new push “could open a very important resource to California” as the state deemphasizes gas for power generation to meet its renewable energy goals.

“California has long been interested in the responsible use of organic waste to promote environmental and economic goals, including but not limited to clean air, effective waste management, job development, energy independence, and resource diversity,” the CPUC order said.

The state has had a biogas action plan and an interagency working group looking at how to deal with some of the contaminants associated with biogas, particularly landfill gas, which may contain vinyl chloride. AB 1900 calls for significant work by state agencies dealing with health, air pollution and hazardous waste.

Under the new law, which amends rules covering health/safety and public resources, the CPUC is tasked with developing biomethane standards by the end of this year. It also has to promote more biomethane use by the energy utilities it regulates and to adopt pipeline access rules.

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