Morro Bay Power Plant shutdown saves fish, kills birds

Morro Bay Power Plant shutdown saves fish, kills birds

Morro Bay Dynergy plantPower plants keep closing in California. Earlier this year, Southern California Edison announced it permanently would shut down its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Then Dynergy Energy announced last month it would decommission the Morro Bay Power Plant whose three tall smokestacks for 50 years have become almost as big a symbol of the city as its looming Morro Rock.

The plant is one of 19 gas-fired power plants along the coast of California, comprising 5,500 megawatts of power generation to be phased out of operation to protect marine life (see map here). The City of Morro Bay has proposed to permit a commercial and tourist redevelopment project on the power plant site.

The major reason for mothballing the power plant was its negative impact on marine life. Thousands of fish larvae got sucked into the power plant’s ocean water inlet.  However, mature fish could not get pulled into the inlet because each inlet tube is only 3/8-inch wide. 

Moreover, as in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” in California some animals are more equal — and valuable — than others. In line with the new priorities of renewable energy, fish seem to be more “equal” than birds and turtles.

For example, there were 34 reported bird deaths in Sept. 2013 attributed to BrightSource Energy’s 459-foot high tower that beams sunlight to thousands of surrounding mirrors at its Ivanpah solar energy project. Also threatened there: 2,325 juvenile desert tortoises.

But unlike fish on the scenic coast, the Ivanpah project is out of sight and mind, located 50 miles from the Salton Sea in the Mojave Desert.

No government agency has ordered an equivalent shutdown of the Ivanpah solar power plant.

Morro Bay Power Plant replaced by CA Valley Solar Ranch

Morro Bay is now getting power from the new California Valley Solar Ranch in eastern San Luis Obispo County.  This $1.6 billion, 250-megawatt solar farm comprises 749,088 solar panels covering 1,500 acres. Which means it costs an astronomical $6,400,000 per installed megawatt of energy, operating at a capacity factor of 22 percent.

By contrast, a natural gas-fired power plant, such as Morro Bay’s, would require one-fourth of the capital investment; would cost about $1,000 per megawatt installed; would be making four times the electricity at an 88 percent capacity factor; and would impact about 25 acres of land.  The California Solar Farm project is not economically feasible without large government tax credits.

It is estimated the power from California Valley Solar Ranch will cost ratepayers from $0.15 to $0.18 per kilowatt-hour. PG&E’s baseline electricity rate is $0.11 per kilowatt hour.


Another option being considered by the city is to partner with Starwood Energy Group, based in Connecticut, to generate clean, renewable energy at the power-plant site.

Starwood’s Chairman is Barry S. Sternlicht, a registered voter in the Democratic Party. He also has been a prominent fund raiser and organizer for President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former Vice President Al Gore, Former President George W. Bush and others.

Ironically, in 2009 Starwood already planned on building a large concentrating solar energy tower plant in Arizona like the Ivanpah solar plant in California.  But the idea for the project ended up being abandoned. According to Reuters, “Lockheed Martin Corp was the engineering, procurement and construction firm for the Starwood project. [Arizona Public Services] said Lockheed Martin decided not to go forward with the project due to the size and the final risk profile of the EPC contract, among other factors.”

This begs the question: If a solar farm were constructed on the site of the old Morro Bay Power Plant, would environmentalists try to shut it down for killing birds, not fish?


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  1. John
    John 6 December, 2013, 07:36

    Natural gas power plants cost about $1,000 per kw not per MW. The correct number for comparison to the solar plant is $1,000,000 per MW. That’s still vastly cheaper to build than that solar plant. But you should focus more on the cost to generate the electricity to get a comparison relevant to consumers. John

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  2. Sean
    Sean 6 December, 2013, 12:41

    Let’s hope that California has some pretty good extension chords hooked up to neighboring states that have more rational energy policy. By the way, I saw an interesting statistic. It turns out that Texas gets a net of ~$350 million dollars in Federal subsidies for wind power generation while California ends up loosing about half that amount, subsidizing renewable energy in other states.

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  3. Joey Racano
    Joey Racano 17 December, 2013, 09:43

    The shut down of all coastal power plants using once through cooling seawater intakes is long overdue. This was especially true on the Morro Bay National Estuary. However, to say we traded killing fish with that power plant for killing ‘birds and bugs’ at California Solar Ranch is untrue. Solar panels belong on our rooftops, not out in the desert. And those aren’t even solar panels, they are mirrors. When you can generate electricity simply by passing sunlight through a photovoltaic solar panel, why should you take an extra step of reflecting that sunlight with a mirror to heat water to generate electricity? It sounds like a Rube Goldberg machine.

    Also, there are no tortoises on carrizzo plain, that’s in the mojave. Finally, to say that solar ranch supplies juice for Morro Bay is baloney- that juice goes to new development. Here’s your homework:

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  4. Barry
    Barry 7 May, 2017, 00:13

    Hey Folks, Aren’t you forgetting something? The big cost of a natural gas fired power plant is the CONTINUING FUEL COST and NOT the initial construction cost. If the 250 MW PV power plant is replaced by a high efficiency natural gas fired power plant, about 6,500 BTU of heat will be needed from natural gas for every kiloWatthour of electricity generated or 6,500,000 BTU for every megaWatthour of electricity generated. If the California Valley Solar Ranch puts out 250 MW for “24 hours” at a capacity factor of 0.22 (if we use the figure in this article. Sunpower claims 0.29 due to the single-axis tracker) it will produce 1,320 MWhours of electricity per day. In one year it will produce 365x this or 482,000 MWhours. A natural gas plant will require 6.5 million BTU from natural gas for every MWhour or 3,132,000 MILLION BTU per year. At the current cost of natural gas, about $3.20 per million BTU, which is cheap, it will cost approximately $10,020,000 every year to fuel the gas turbine power plant. The solar plant has NO fuel cost. If the gas turbine ran all year at a 0.88 capacity factor the fuel cost would be four times this or $40,080,000 per year. (Of course, this would be for four times the electricity produced.) Neglecting inflation, the gas turbine would use over $200 million in fuel over 20 years. With inflation this would be $300 million to $400 million for 20 years. By the way, today’s photovoltaic modules will probably last 25 to 30 years or more, although their output does degrade half to one percent each year, so it might take 25 years to get “20 years” of life.

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