Poseidon vows 100% clean energy for desalination plant in Huntington Beach
Opponents are skeptical of the claim, calling for a firm commitment.
by Martin Wisckol
As Poseidon Water gears up for next month’s final permit hearings on its controversial Huntington Beach desalination proposal, the company signed a non-binding agreement Tuesday, Feb. 22, recognizing a “goal” of 100% clean energy for the massive power needs of the plant.
The surge of new greenhouse gases resulting from those needs is among numerous objections to the operation, and opponents remain skeptical Poseidon will follow through with its 100% clean energy promise.
The language of the memorandum of understanding signed by Poseidon and Orange County Power Authority officials speaks in tentative terms, saying that Poseidon will pursue an “investigation of a 100% renewable energy product.” Opponents want an irrevocable legal document instead.
Following Tuesday’s ceremonial signing in a shared-workspace conference room in Irvine, Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni dismissed opponents’ criticism. He said the tentative language was necessary because the desalination project still lacks a final permit from the state Coastal Commission, so no binding agreement could be formalized and that “nuances” of a deal with the Power Authority still needed to be explored.
“The purpose of today’s announcement is to memorialize Poseidon’s commitment to power the desalination plant with 100% clean energy,” he told the Register. “This represents the next step toward that.”
The proposed $1.4 billion plant, 22 years in development, would provide 50 million gallons of drought-proof water daily, enough for about 400,000 people. The water would bolster existing supplies that serve 2.5 million residents in north and central Orange County.
The operation would require 19 gigawatt hours of energy monthly, according to Poseidon. That’s enough to power some 40,000 households, according to Power Authority CEO Brian Probolsky.
While Poseidon had previously said the project will produce “zero carbon” because the company would buy credits through the state’s cap-and-trade program, that plan simply ensured there were emission reductions or sequestrations elsewhere to compensate for the additional greenhouse gases produced in powering the desalination plant. But by using 100% clean energy, there would be virtually no new carbon emissions from powering the plant and no apparent need to buy those credits.
The Power Authority, formed in late 2020, joins a growing state trend, dubbed community-choice energy, where non-profit agencies provide a cleaner alternative to private utilities such as Southern California Edison. Through the authority, customers can choose from three renewable energy blends: 100%, 69% or 38%, the last of which is similar to the mix currently supplied by Edison. The cleaner energy is more expensive, with the 100% option currently costing customers about 5.6% more than the 38% choice.
Four cities have joined the Power Authority so far, with Huntington Beach, Irvine and Buena Park choosing the 100% tier as the default choice for customers in those communities and Fullerton picking the 69% choice. However, individual customers in those cities can opt to stay with Edison or they can opt for a different tier than the default choice.
Critics’ chief concerns in recent hearings have focused primarily on the plant’s impact on marine life, mitigation for that damage, whether the water is needed, and the projected cost of the water — which would initially be more twice that of the imported water it would supplant. But other concerns include the coastal operation’s vulnerability to sea-level rise and the carbon byproduct of powering the plant.
At least two of the environmental groups rallying against the plant, Orange County Coastkeeper and Azul, said Tuesday’s agreement does little to ease their concerns about greenhouse gas emissions.
“All that (Poseidon) is promising is to ‘work toward’ 100% clean energy,” said Andrea Leon-Grossman, Azul’s director of climate action. “If they’re being honest, they will commit to only using 100% clean fuels and steer clear of carbon fuels that exacerbate the climate crisis. They’ll also have no problem promising this before the California Coastal Commission. Anything less is a ruse.”