Lois Henry

Saturday, Feb 23 2013 10:30 PM

LOIS HENRY: Westside hydrogen plant bubbling with issues

By Lois Henry

There are plenty of good reasons to oppose the Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) power and chemical/fertilizer plant proposed to be built near Tupman.

Air quality isn't one.

Related Info

Lois Henry hosts "Californian Radio" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Keeping up with HECA

Below are a couple of web pages to help you keep track of what's happened so far and what's upcoming on the Hydrogen Energy California plant proposed to be built near Tupman.

This is the California Energy Commission webpage.


Go to the gray box at the top, right hand side of the page and click "documents and reports" for everything that's been filed so far on this plant. There are also links to public meetings and hearings held so far.

This is SCS Energy's webpage on the project.


It gives a history of the plant and SCS's involvement as well as links to project documents under the tab called "resources" at the top of the page.

Upcoming HECA meetings

The Kern County Board of Supervisors will hold an informational hearing on the HECA plant Tuesday afternoon.

San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution District Director Seyed Sadredin will be on hand to explain the air district's proposed mitigation measures for the plant.

The meeting will be in Board chambers at 1115 Truxtun Avenue and begins at 2 p.m.

The Air District has issued a preliminary "determination of compliance" on mitigation measures it intends to require of the HECA plant. That document is required by the California Energy Commission as it considers approval of an operating permit for the plant.

The air district is taking public comments on its preliminary determination for 30 days and will hold a public meeting April 2 at 6 p.m. in its Bakersfield offices to explain its preliminary determination.

The office is at 34946 Flyover Ct Bakersfield, CA 93308. Contact the district at 392-5500 for more information.


Here's why.

This plant was devised as a demonstration project on how to make electricity cleanly using coal and, at the same time, keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere by using them to plump up local oil fields.

That's the whole reason it got that ginormous $300-plus million stimulus grant from the Department of Energy back in 2009.

It's designed to be a low-emission energy producer.

Low-emission is relative, of course. It is a power plant after all.

Which is why the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District stepped in, even though it does not have authority to approve or deny an operating permit for the plant.

That power lies with the California Energy Commission.

All the air district can do is let the commission know if the plant is in compliance with required mitigation standards. Mitigation means the plant has to make up for environmental damage it causes, i.e. if it pollutes it has to reduce pollution elsewhere.

And in this case, the air district is making HECA go above and beyond legally required mitigation standards.

Instead of accepting 1-1 mitigation (for every ton of pollution produced, the plant has to reduce a ton elsewhere), the air district is requiring a 1-1.5 mitigation.

To do that, the plant owner, Massachusetts-based SCS Energy LLC, has agreed to pay nearly $8.5 million to the air district, plus buy pollution credits from the now-shuttered Alon Refinery on Rosedale Highway.

That district will use that money to help school districts buy low-emission buses, aid with traffic synchronization, work with farmers to replace diesel ag pumps, etc.

Contrary to popular belief, the district didn't give a thumbs up to HECA emitting more than the "allowable" amounts of pollutants, explained Air District Director Seyed Sadredin.

It's a little confusing, but there's no such thing as "allowable thresholds."

"It's not a go or no-go situation," Sadredin said. "There are levels established that, in our region especially, if you emit more than those levels, you're considered a significant source of emission."

Once a business is in the significant category, the air district can work up mitigation measures.

"We're not supporting or advocating for this project," Sadredin said. "Our position is, if project proponents want it to be built, they have to do all these extra things before we give our OK."

Since the plant owners have said they're cool with the air district's demands, I doubt opponents are going to make headway on the air issue with the Energy Commission.


Likewise with water.

This plant will take a lot of water, more than 7,400 acre feet a year. That's huge.

But Buena Vista Water Storage District happens to have a large supply of brackish groundwater, too salty for crops, in the western reaches of its district. It needs, and wants to, get rid of that water and has repeatedly made that case to the Energy Commission.

So, no traction to be had on the water issue either.

Recently, a new issue has surfaced that may have more bite. Fertilizer.

The original owners, oil giant BP and mining company Rio Tinto, only wanted to make power from coal and sell the Co2 (carbon dioxide) byproduct to Oxy to inject into it's Elk Hills field.

SCS Energy has said it also needs to make fertilizer to turn a profit.

However, in its application papers to the Energy Commission, SCS also suggested the plant would make products "beyond the scope of the production of fertilizer for agricultural uses." Such as urea, urea ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia.

That caught the eye of Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt. She wrote to the Energy Commission concerned HECA was basically turning out to be a chemical manufacturing plant.

Her concerns were met with a "tut tut" wait-and-see response from the Commission.


I think HECA's real Achilles heel is in its waste.

Three years ago, I caught wind that the plant would produce an average of 400 -- to as much as 840 -- tons per day of slag.

That's the stuff left over from gasification of the coal and petroleum coke, which generates the plant's power.

They super heat the coal/coke to extract the hydrogen, which is used to crank the turbines to make power.

What's left is "gasification solids," or slag, a hard glassy substance that breaks into obsidian like flakes, Oviatt told me.

Three years ago, when Kern County Supervisors first learned of the massive slag waste, they fretted that the plant would obliterate the county's landfill capacity. Not to mention destroy our ability to comply with the state's mandate to reduce our overall waste stream.

HECA owners at the time planned to recycle the slag by selling it as road base. That never panned out.

SCS Energy spokeswoman Tiffany Rau told me plant owners are still hoping to recycle the slag either as asphalt cover or for sand blasting. If not, she said, they would ship it out of state.

Won't work.

Shipping out of state still counts against Kern, Oviatt said.

"So, we'd go from 62 percent compliance (with the state's waste diversion mandate) down to 27 percent," she said. "The slag is a problem. There is really no use for that much stuff."

Under the original HECA project, county staff figured it could cost up to $10 million a year to mitigate for the waste impacts. The owners at the time protested that number.

Looking at it today, staffers figured the cost could be as much as $30 million a year if the slag can't find a recycled use.

SCS Energy hasn't protested that amount.

That tells me they expect to make a fertilizer load of money selling their electricity, Co2 and what not.


Like I said, plenty of reasons to oppose HECA. Opponents just have to pick the right one.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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