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ACC to consider SRP gas plant expansion application

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Posted at 6:43 PM, Mar 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-14 22:06:29-04

COOLIDGE, AZ — Expansion of Salt River Project's (SRP) gas-fired power plant in Coolidge is a few regulatory steps away from becoming reality.

The expansion to include 16 additional gas turbines for what the company said will be used during peak use hours and when renewables are not available. The plant currently has 12 turbines.

On Wednesday, the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) is expected to hear public comment about the company's application for Certificate of Environmental Compatibility.

But people with homes in Randolph, the historically Black community next door to the plant, fear that their voices won't matter.

After an 8-day hearing in February, the Arizona Power Plant and Transmission Line Siting Committee recommended that the ACC approve the application. Residents of Randolph and neighboring areas spoke out against it citing emissions, noise, and light pollution.

Built into the recommendation are several goodwill gestures that SRP is to provide to Randolph including landscaping plans, help with grant writing to seek funds for improvement, historical designation help, job training skills for Randolph residents, scholarships, and paving certain roads. Details are to be worked out by a Community Working Group consisting of Randolph residents, SRP, Pinal County and City of Coolidge.

Resident Ron Jordan said everything is moving so fast the community is having a hard time keeping up.

"They'll tell you today, and then they want to do it two or three days from now is no way that's going to happen," Jordan said.

The speed with which the entire project is moving has been an issue from the start.

The company announced plans on August 24, 2021. By September 13, the full board approved spending up to $953 million for the expansion.

"It raises red flags for a utility or any business to make a billion-dollar purchase with about 30 days' worth of public notice," said Amanda Ormond, who is with Western Grid Group which lobbies for clean energy policies.

"Utilities in the west are not buying gas at this time," she said. "And so SRP may be the last utility in the west to be buying a gas plant."

In public documents filed with the ACC, the utility is cited saying, "there is a critical need for additional power that needs to be met somehow, some way. So we need a decision by the Corporation Commission in the first quarter of this year..."

The end of March marks that deadline. If not approved, the utility has said in public documents that it could face reliability issues by summer 2024.

While SRP does need approval from the ACC to build, it is not regulated by them.  This means the company is able to move faster than investor-owned utilities like Arizona Public Service and Tucson Electric Power, because SRP's resource plans don't have the same extensive review process by state regulators.

But even with that in mind, Ormond said, "The speed of this decision has been something I've never seen for SRP or really in the industry."

Large utilities like SRP plan how to meet future demand well in advance using energy demand forecasts. ABC15 asked the utility how it miscalculated needing this much generation capacity, in such a short amount of time.

In its response, SRP said it identified the need for more gas generation in 2018. The plant was purchased the next year.  

By the time the pandemic hit in 2020, "the economic climate was uncertain with many national economists forecasting low growth or a prolonged recession," SRP's statement said.

Instead, the state grew larger in economy and population.

The statement continued, "To respond to this extraordinary growth, SRP has accelerated the previously planned proposed expansion to Coolidge Generating Station to provide reliable power to its rapidly growing customer base."

Process aside, Ormond also has concerns about the costs to fuel the plant.

"Gas is a volatile commodity. It goes up and down in price. And when it does, all those costs are shifted to customers," she said.

SRP said it looked at wind and solar and concluded that the 16 new turbines are "the most prudent and practical approach."

All are issues that Ormond said could be further considered if there were time for more public scrutiny.

The people in Randolph want more time too. They attempted to have the application heard at the ACC's open meeting in April.

"Postpone their big meeting a couple of weeks to give a little more time to work all this out," Jordan said.

That was denied. Public comment will be taken during the March 15 ACC Open Meeting after 3 p.m. But only by phone.

"It's all these little steps. That seems like it makes it a little harder for you to get up there and make your presentation," Jordan said.

Which Jordan says reinforces his fear that approval of the application is already a done deal."It seems like this is just, it's a waste of time in a way because you know, you're not gonna win," Jordan said.

The public can participate by dialing 1-866-705-2554.

To speak use passcode 241497#, to listen only use 2414978#. 

You can also watch online here.