OCPA’s “Clean” Coal BY JIM PHELPS Jun 26, 2024

The Cholla Power Plant, located in Joseph City, AZ Credit: Jim Phelps

From all appearances coal-fired power has disappeared from California — with rare exception it no longer appears on energy providers’ Power Content Labels. But a different reality is occurring off stage. Coal is propping up California’s seemingly spectacular renewable energy achievements, seeping into the portfolios of many energy retailers, including Orange County Power Authority (OCPA). Due to a loophole, nearly 60% of coal’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not even counted, depressing energy retailers’ advertised carbon reductions, which misleads consumers.

Ground zero is the California Air Resources Board (CARB), whose many duties include quantifying GHG emissions from “unspecified power,” which forms California’s generic daily mix of electricity resources – also known as system power – the bulk electricity product, which includes coal. Unspecified power also comprises the Western Energy Imbalance Market, which claims to improve integration of California’s renewable energy and is largely driven by Warren Buffett’s corporate giant, Oregon-based PacifiCorp.

Everyone uses CARB’s antiquated standardized emission rate of about 944 pounds of CO2e per megawatt-hour for unspecified power, despite failed legislative attempts to update that factor. In the meantime, coal’s actual GHGs are almost 2.5x CARB’s rate with more than 110 billion pounds uncounted each year assuming all energy from the western U.S.’s primary coal plants is delivered under California’s “unspecified power” banner.

The situation is particularly germane to OCPA because, unlike Southern California Edison which also uses unspecified power, OCPA greenwashes unspecified power that it promotes as delivered wind energy to all OCPA customers while also publishing lower-than-actual GHGs for its products. Lack of public transparency is partially to blame, facilitated by unspecified power’s generic definition, which keeps “coal” (and “natural gas”) off retailers’ Power Content Labels and consumers in the dark.

Unspecified power is desirable because it’s a stable, reliable energy supply that’s available throughout the night when there’s no solar, or when the wind isn’t blowing. 75% of OCPA’s advertised electricity is wind and solar. These intermittent resources destabilize California’s electricity grid, causing local or widespread blackout potential unless supportive background energy – known as “resource adequacy” (RA) — is secured. OCPA was fined more than $2.5 million for willful RA violations, which it quietly settled in preparation for soliciting new city members to backfill Huntington Beach’s departure.

If you build it are you sure they will come?

OCPA promotes battery storage as a solution to intermittent wind and solar production, ignoring batteries’ record of fires, limited discharge life, and over-heating. In a best case, at full discharge, the biggest battery farms in the US are only capable of powering their regions for, at most, a few minutes. Even if longer-term discharge technology is developed, wind drought remains a problem, as Europe has experienced. How are batteries recharged? By carpeting OCPA members’ land with solar panels? Assuming sun is available, solar carport shade structures will provide only a fraction of requisite recharging power. What do long-term power outages look like then?

While OCPA’s marketing continues, California’s rabid quest for a carbon-free energy future remains propped up by unspecified power and the coal industry.