Building Healthy Communities from the Ground up

The Regenerate California Coalition Examines California’s Underperforming Gas Plants

New analysis of California’s 2022 heat wave confirms gas plants failed to deliver promised power while toxic emissions soared in environmental justice communities.

Results call into question Gov. Newsom’s strategy to prolong the life of gas plants to prevent energy shortfalls.

Download the 2023 Heatwave Report here

California gas plants underperformed and over polluted in the record breaking heat wave of 2022, the latest in a string of extreme, prolonged heat events. Following Governor Newsom’s Executive Order lifting emissions limits on gas plants and diesel backup generators, toxic emissions compounded already extremely degraded air quality in low-income communities of color, according to a study released today from Regenerate California, a partnership between the California Environmental Justice Alliance and Sierra Club. 

Researchers from Grid Strategies analyzed power output and emissions from 107 gas plants during the heat event from August 31 to September 9, 2022, and found that thousands of megawatts from gas plants were lost due to outages or curtailments during peak periods between 4-9 pm, representing a total value exceeding $280 million in foregone gas generation. The 1.1 million megawatt hours (MWh) (equivalent to nearly 5000 MW) of gas-fired generation that was left offline during peak hours would have been enough to power 3.75 million homes — or roughly 28% of the total households in California. This significant energy shortfall was instead left to be addressed in part by carcinogenic diesel backup generators. Blackouts were narrowly averted on the seventh consecutive day of the heat wave when Californians responded to a text alert from California’s Office of Emergency Services by voluntarily reducing energy demand by 2,600 megawatts within 45 minutes. 

“This study debunks the myth that gas plants are an antidote to energy shortfalls, especially during extreme heat,” said Ari Eisenstadt, Energy Equity Manager with the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “Several gas plants failed to deliver the promised energy output when we needed it most, costing the state precious energy, money and increasing emissions in vulnerable communities. Gas simply does not do its job when it matters most. Gas plants’ mythical reliability value in keeping the lights on is far outweighed by their negative air quality impacts for environmental justice communities.”

The report notes that plants like AES Alamitos and Ormond Beach Generating Station regularly underperformed under extreme temperatures. These are two of the plants that were scheduled to be decommissioned but may be kept online by Newsom’s Strategic Reliability Reserve established under Assembly Bill 205. The California Energy Commission is set to vote on whether or not to extend the life of those plants in the near future.

“Many fossil-fueled generators experienced equipment failures or large reductions in their output during the heatwave, causing the fleet to fall short of the reliability contributions it is paid to provide,” noted co-author Michael Goggin with the consulting firm Grid Strategies. “Fossil generators also caused large spikes in toxic emissions during the heatwave, in many cases in or near disadvantaged communities.”

The study found that following Newsom’s Executive Order lifting pollution restrictions on gas plants during the heatwave, they generated on average 70% higher NOx emissions, incurring up to $27.8 million in estimated negative health impacts. NOx pollution—which contributes to asthma, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and is a precursor to smog—disproportionately burdens communities with high populations of low-income and BIPOC residents, where the majority of gas plants are located. During the ten days of the heatwave, gas plants also emitted an average of 214,000 tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions daily, which over ten days is equivalent to pollution from 432,000 vehicles in a single year

“Emissions in my community were 13 times worse than normal during the heatwave as the Ormond Beach gas plant ran overtime,” said Sofi Magallon, Policy Advocate with Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “Environmental justice communities like mine already suffer the most during heat waves, and now we’re unfairly taking the brunt of pollution from a gas plant that was supposed to shut down in 2020. Compounded with other pollution from diesel backup generators that were allowed to run unregulated, we were yet again exposed to unacceptable health risks when we needed protection the most.”

“If we learn anything from last year’s heat wave, it’s that depending on fossil fuels to keep the lights on is a bad plan,” said Teresa Cheng, Senior Campaign Representative with the Sierra Club. “We must invest in demand-side solutions and drive local clean energy buildout in environmental justice communities to improve air quality and ensure grid reliability. With the Inflation Reduction Act, there’s no better time than now to plan for California’s transition off our dependence on fossil fuels.”