Major expansion of natural gas plant gets OK from SRP board despite climate change objections

Salt River Project's Coolidge Generating Station in Coolidge, Ariz.
Ryan Randazzo
Arizona Republic

A nearly $1 billion expansion of a gas-burning power plant in Coolidge got the green light to proceed Monday after hours of public testimony in opposition and debate among a divided Salt River Project board of directors.

The public power and water utility plans to spend as much as $953 million to build 16 new quick-start generators to the Coolidge Generating Station, more than doubling the size of the plant.

SRP officials said the expansion was needed to meet the periods of heaviest electricity demand — hot summer afternoons — in the rapidly growing Phoenix area.

Opponents of the project mainly focused on the carbon emissions a new fossil fuel plant would emit for years to come, contributing to climate change. They noted its construction would happen asSRP has pledged to reduce carbon and focus heavily on renewable solar, wind and battery storage to power its more than 1 million customers.

SRP officials said that while counterintuitive, building the fossil-fuel burning generators will enable the utility to integrate more variable solar and wind resources onto the grid and reduce the amount of carbon produced per kilowatt-hour of electricity on its system.

"By 2025 nearly 50% of SRP's energy will come from carbon-free resources," said Associate General Manager Kelly Barr. "An important step, and it seems a little counterintuitive but I assure you it is necessary, is to add the next critical component of this diverse portfolio, which is to expand the Coolidge Generating Station."

She said the expansion would provide the grid a "reliability backbone" and allow SRP to add more renewable energy.

Opponents of the plan also questioned SRP's apparent rush, only announcing the project in late August and voting to move ahead within a month.

“The SRP Board made a nearly billion dollar decision to build 16 gas units with ratepayer money without knowing the projected impact on monthly electricity bills or the total cost over time including fuel and maintenance," said Diane Brown, executive director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund.

"The SRP board, stakeholders, and customers remain in the dark about the inputs used for load forecasts and the specific factors and scenarios contemplated in the Coolidge Expansion Project — which is not the way a utility should conduct business."

Board member Randy Miller, who has criticized the proposal, made a motion to delay the decision for a month while the board could further investigate alternatives, but that motion failed after Grant Smedley, SRP director of resource planning, warned the board that such a delay could threaten the construction schedule and raise costs.

The full board then voted 8-6 to proceed with the project.

What the Coolidge plant plan entails

The 615-megawatt Coolidge power plant will grow significantly under the plan. It currently has 12 generators on site, and the capacity to power about 150,000 homes when running at full capacity.

The expansion would add another 820 megawatts, or enough to power about 200,000 homes when running at full capacity.

SRP's plan is for the first eight units to be running in summer of 2024 and second eight in summer 2025.

Several people, including Democrats serving in the state Legislature and on city councils in the Phoenix area, spoke in opposition to the plans, urging SRP to avoid any new carbon emissions as well as other pollutants that complicate breathing.

JoAnna Strother, who advocates for the American Lung Association, said the utility should consider the effects more fossil generation will have on people with asthma and other breathing illnesses.

“Arizona has some of the worst air quality in the country so it is critical that our decision makers are taking key actions to reduce our emissions and clean up our air,” Strother said.

Also speaking in opposition were state Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, Tempe Council member Lauren Kuby, who announced her intention to run for the Arizona Corporation Commission, and Phoenix Council member Yassamin Ansari

But Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said in a comment on social media that he supports SRP, and he had some comments for all of the people outside his town commenting on the project.

"I love all these people talking about how they know best for my community etc. not sure what I’d do without all their 'help'!" Shope wrote in a post on Twitter. "Here’s hoping we’re able to expand the plant in Coolidge!"

SRP board member Stephen Williams also mocked the speakers who opposed the project, saying at one point in the meeting that the utility can't solve the "world's problems" related to climate change.

"They keep coming up, 'Stop this. Stop this.' OK, then stop using power," Williams said.

Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at ryan.randazzo@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.