COOLIDGE, AZ — The Arizona Corporation Commission denied a huge expansion of Salt River Project's gas-fired power plant in Coolidge by a vote of 4 -1, on Tuesday.
It's a stunning defeat for Arizona's second-largest utility which had proposed to expand the power plant from 12 to 28 quick start gas-powered turbines.
While not regulated by the ACC the company must get its approval of a Certificate of Compatibility for power generation projects over 100kw. Approval had already been recommended with the Arizona Power Plant and Line Sitting Committee.
The company hastily introduced plans for the $953 million plant in August 2021 and maintained that it had an urgent need for more power generation due to unexpected growth in its service territory but said the plant would primarily be used during peak hours and when renewables are not available.
ABC15 was first to report about the concerns of the historically Black community of Randolph, which neighbors the power plant and has fought its expansion from the start. For years, neighbors have opposed the expansion of industrial businesses that have closed in around them as parts of the unincorporated community were annexed by the City of Coolidge.
The area is about 60 miles south of Phoenix.
The utility argued that the expansion of the plant was the most reliable, and least costly resource to provide the power but environmental groups and even some SRP board members were not convinced because the company did not issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for all power generation sources prior to drawing its conclusions. Instead, the utility said it used information it already had on hand to make its determination.
On Tuesday that explanation was not enough to convince commissioners.
Chairwoman Lea Marquez Peterson cited the utility's failure to conduct an all-source RFP and its decision not to provide the full analysis from consultant E3, as reasons for her voting against the proposal.
"I believe the application and evidence on the record is incomplete and insufficient for us to make an informed decision as a commission," she said while explaining her vote.
Commissioner Sandra Kennedy said she agrees that SRP needs more power generation capacity, "however I totally reject that it must be a polluting fossil gas facility." She added, "this project was pushed through with an unconscionable lack of public participation prior to the SRP board vote."
Marquez Peterson and Kennedy, along with Commissioners Anna Tovar and Jim O'Connor voted to deny the application.
Commissioner Justin Olson was the lone dissenter.
Randolph homeowner Jeff Jordan, who has fought against industrial expansion in the area told ABC15 it was a decision he hoped for but told ABC15 he was "utterly shocked" it happened.
"With environmental issues we've fighting them for a long time," Jordan said. "This certainly would have impacted our community tremendously. So, the commission today did the right thing. They really did."
Ahead of the meeting outside of the commission offices people from Randolph held a press conference in which Pastor Warren Stewart Sr. of First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix gave a fiery speech evoking the biblical story of David and Goliath.
But it's a vote that almost didn't happen.
Prior to discussion, Tovar questioned if public comment would be allowed since dozens of residents from Randolph had been bused in to speak. It was determined that allowing comment would be a violation of open meeting law because the Chair noticed the meeting specifically not to include public comment. Marquez Peterson explained that robust public comment had been held throughout the process, so she expected only for Commissioners to discuss and take a vote.
But it's a decision that Commissioner Kennedy took issue with and publicly questioned if the race of Randolph residents played a factor leading to a heated exchange with Marquez Peterson cutting off her comment.
After an hour of back-and-forth between commissioners and attorneys about pulling the item and setting public comment for a different date O'Connor asked for a recess to figure out what to do. Upon return, Tovar and Kennedy changed their minds and were in favor of voting during the meeting as originally planned.
With the denial, SRP now must figure out how it will get the generating capacity it needs soon.
In a statement, SRP told ABC15 it, "will continue to evaluate what generation and market options to pursue in the near-term to address the resource challenge this decision creates for serving our customers with reliable, affordable, sustainable energy."
The utility has a few options to try and keep the application alive according to a commission spokesman. Within 30 days it can request a reconsideration but to appeal the company must file an application for rehearing within 20 days. If the commission takes no action the company can appeal to Superior Court.