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State regulators want a study of clean alternatives to an Oxnard natural gas plant

The operator of the state’s electrical grid may conduct a study of clean-energy alternatives to a proposed natural gas plant that would replace an existing facility in Ventura County. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

State regulators late Friday accepted a proposal for a study of clean-energy alternatives to a proposed natural gas power plant in Ventura County — the second decision this week to reassess building new fossil fuel facilities.

The California Independent System Operator, which manages the electrical grid for much of the state, had offered to conduct the study after prodding by the organization’s governing board.

Members of the California Energy Commission reviewing the planned Puente natural gas plant deliberated for much of the week before issuing a seven-page statement in support of the study. If a review can help determine whether energy storage or other sources can help meet Oxnard’s electricity needs, they should be considered as a substitute for building the planned Puente natural gas plant, the committee statement said.

“The committee understands development of such a study is normally a complex and intensive undertaking, but is hopeful that the California ISO will be able to derive a simplified set of assumptions that will allow the ISO to provide meaningful results,” wrote energy commissioners Janea Scott and Karen Douglas, who conducted the committee hearings.

The commissioners gave the grid operator until June 16 to say whether it will conduct the study and requested that it be completed no later than July 19.

Representatives of the system operator told the committee earlier this week that the study could be completed in three to four weeks.

The commissioners’ decision drew an immediate response from NRG Energy Inc., which would build and own the Puente power plant with Southern California Edison Co. as the electricity customer. Edison’s ratepayers would foot the bill.

“Six months ago, in December 2016, the [California Public Utilities Commission] approved … the Puente Power Project as necessary and appropriate to maintain reliable electric service in the Oxnard area,” NRG spokesman David B. Knox said in a statement.

“Since that time, no additional feasible, cost-effective and available preferred resources have been identified that would eliminate the need for the Puente Power Project,” Knox said. “We appreciate the commission striving to keep the project on schedule and remain confident that additional studies will continue to confirm the need for the Puente Power Project.”

The review of the Puente project follows a decision Tuesday by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to conduct a study to determine if clean-energy alternatives could replace natural gas plants that the agency is set to rebuild.

The DWP study is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2018.

The Puente project and the DWP plants are among eight different projects in Southern California to build or retool natural gas plants.

Regulators and the utility industry have argued that the plants are needed close to customers to ensure reliability of the electrical grid, in particular when night falls or clouds reduce solar power and when the wind isn’t blowing to generate electricity from windmills.

But since the plants were initially proposed and given preliminary approval, the cost of solar panels, wind power and energy storage have dropped so that the cost is on par with or less than fossil fuel plants. And energy storage has increasingly become viable and cost-effective.

The fresh scrutiny of the natural gas plant proposals comes after a Los Angeles Times investigation found that the state is operating with an oversupply of electricity, driven largely by the construction of gas-fueled generating plants, leading to higher rates. The state’s power plants are on track to be able to produce at least 21% more electricity than needed by 2020, according to the Times report.

Californians are footing a $40-billion annual bill while using less electricity, paying $6.8 billion more than they did in 2008 when power use in the state was at its all-time high. Electricity consumption has since fallen and remained largely flat.

For more energy news, follow Ivan Penn on Twitter: @ivanlpenn