The nation’s largest municipal utility, the $4 billion Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), plans to nearly double its reliance on natural gas for electricity generation while phasing out coal over the next two decades, according to a presentation last Saturday by new General Manager Ron Nichols.

The city run utility, which has been in some bitter public fights with the Los Angeles City Council in the past 18 months, has been trying to reach a rapprochement with the city’s elected officials, beginning with a rare Saturday session where Nichols laid out LADWP’s spending plan.

In a meeting that was dominated by environmental representatives, Nichols announced that LADWP will eliminate once-through-cooling using sea water at three of its coastal Los Angeles Basin gas-fired generation plants. He told council member and his board that all of the plants representing 14 gas-fired units are vital to the city utility’s long-term power reliability.

Upgrading the plants to operate without use of sea water is slated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars as a major part of power spending estimated to be more than $3 billion over the next five years, said Nichols, who noted that the city utility will have to meet California’s new mandate for 33% renewables by 2020, and it will have to accelerate efforts to get off its heavy dependence on out-of-state coal-fired generation.

Last year LADWP’s generation mix was led by coal (39%), with natural gas (24%) next and renewables the third largest source (20%). The plans Nichols presented see that shifting dramatically with natural gas becoming the source for nearly half of the utility’s power (47%), renewables providing one-third, and coal being totally phased out by 2030.

In response to a question from one of the city council members Nichols said LADWP will end its supplies from the coal-fired Navajo Power Plant in Arizona before 2020 when a third of its supplies will be mandated to come from renewables. “That will be replaced by a slice of increased energy efficiency, a slice of new renewables and a slice of added gas-fired generation,” he said.

“I think most of the people here, and I know I am, are pleased to see that your pie chart show zero coal-fired generation in 2030,” said Councilman Paul Krekorian, drawing applause from the mostly environmental activist audience.

In terms of the coastal gas-fired plants and the need to phase out their use of sea water for cooling, Nichols told the council member that there isn’t a lot of flexibility in meeting the new statewide rules. “We have 14 different units that are located on tightly confined sites,” he said.

“These are plants that we have to have, and they have to operate to keep our power supply in balance — stable and reliable. We have to keep each of those units running while we replace them. It is like fixing a bicycle while you ride it. Our plan now calls for every year that we will be replacing some of those units. To do anything quicker than that would require taking some of the existing units out of service, and we can’t do that.

“We’re moving forward as quickly as we can and still provide reliable electricity supplies.”

Nichols estimated that LADWP will spend $403 million on the water cooling change out in the next two years, and $1.3 billion through 2015.

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