At a price of $728,000, it was thought to be an offer the City of Oxnard couldn’t refuse.

But the city balked at Southern California Edison’s offer to prepay for its estimated lifetime use of the local water supply for a proposed 45-megawatt, natural gas-fired peaker plant at Mandalay Beach, which the city has sternly opposed, in return for obtaining construction permits for the facility.

So it came as no surprise to the city when SCE recently threatened to sue Oxnard for continually blocking its attempt to build the plant. The city, along with San Francisco-based The Utility Reform Network (TURN), has previously filed a number of appeals and motions effectively stalling construction approval for SCE.

The city has been in the trenches of this fight since 2006, when the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) ordered the construction of five more peaker plants in the state as a response to the record-level power outages from the year’s heat wave, designating Oxnard as one of the chosen locations. While the other peaker plants were erected within the next year, SCE has spent about $40 million trying to get the Oxnard plant operational, with an estimated $20 million remaining for construction costs, according to documents from the PUC.

With two power plant facilities already operating along the coastline, city officials still don’t understand why Oxnard has been dealt the hand that includes housing these facilities.

“The community sees really little benefit and views it as a burden instead of an asset,” said Councilman Tim Flynn. “It’s not whether Oxnard hasn’t done its fair share as far as providing facilities for energy. The only facilities for electrical power generation in the county are in Oxnard.”

Flynn noted, however, that there has been direction for the City Council to consider decommissioning the existing power plant facilities.

Peaker plants provide energy boosts to the state grid during peak hours of electricity use and will serve the region in the event of load interruptions, earthquakes or fires that may take a transmission line out of service, said Mark Nelson, Edison’s director of General Strategy and Planning.

“This plant puts power into the local grid, not up onto the high-voltage system,” said Nelson. The Oxnard facility, Nelson explained, would be a black-start peaker plant, meaning that if the grid goes pitch dark, the plant can quickly start itself, generate electricity and put it out on the grid, and resuscitate other power plants.

“These black-start plants become the critical boot strap in the process of getting the grid restored, and when you get into the Ventura/Santa Barbara region, there aren’t any other black-starts outlets here. That is the reason we specifically chose that location to put a black-start plant in,” said Nelson.

The core argument for opposition to the peaker plant is that it is not a coastal-dependent facility. Despite the plant being located in a 100-year flood plain and numerous environmental groups petitioning over the facility, the California Coastal Commission went forward with a recommendation in 2009.

“Industrializing the coastal zone is wrong,” said Al Sanders, president of the Ormond Beach Observers, a group dedicated to the restoration and enhancement of the wetlands.

Bob Finkelstein, legal director for TURN, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group dealing with utilities, said that when generation plants get built, his group makes sure it is done in the most environmentally sensitive way. The proposed peaker plant is “the anitithesis of that.”

“As a for-profit utility, everything is calculated in part for the return for their shareholders. This is the only reason that makes sense for them being so gung-ho about this,” said Finkelstein.

Situated on a 16-acre parcel just south of the GenOn 430-megawatt power plant on Harbor Boulevard, Edison officials claim the peaker plant will be dramatically smaller than the existing plants. They also said the facility will be fully landscaped with native plants and will have an 80-foot exhaust stack.

Since the PUC’s order to build additional peaker plants came in 2006, both Sanders and Flynn, among others, have questioned how dire the need is for the electrical grid to add another peaker plant, especially as California works to make renewable energies more convenient for mainstream application.   

shane@vcreporter.com