As Los Angeles continues its pursuit of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, the City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to allow the L.A. Department of Water and Power to begin contracting an $800-million conversion of the city’s largest fossil gas-fired power plant, Scattergood Generating Station, to green hydrogen, an alternative energy source that produces lower carbon emissions. There’s just one catch: Climate and environmental activists say the change will bring more harm than good.
Responding to public comments before the vote, the Los Angeles Times reports, Jasmin Vargas, an organizer with environmental nonprofit Food & Water Watch, called hydrogen “fundamentally racist and inequitable,” due to the potential nitrogen oxide pollution it could cause. Opponents of the conversion argue that nitrogen oxide, which can damage lungs, poses more of a threat than current natural gas technology. This is made more problematic given the troubling history of fossil fuel production’s disproportionate impact on low-income communities, as low income housing is usually the closest to rail-lines, refineries, and plants like Scattergood.
“The hype around hydrogen is gaining steam,” Food & Water Watch said in a report preceding the council vote. “Proponents tout it as the clean energy of the future. But hydrogen entrenches fossil fuel use and infrastructure, as well as the resulting pollution in frontline communities.” Hydrogen production would consume the annual equivalent of water used by 34 million Americans, the group says, not including the water needed for gas production, leaving advocates deeply concerned that the already urgent national water crisis would also be compounded by a hydrogen power buildout.
It’s no surprise that L.A. would find the potential of a more climate-conscious alternative appealing. In 2021, according to the Times, L.A. got one-quarter of its electricity from natural gas, a direct contributor to the increased fires, droughts, and heat waves emblematic of a climate reckoning. The effort to become a greener city has also led L.A. to embrace all manner of creative measures—everything from forbidding the sale of new gas-powered cars, working to ban the sale of diesel rigs by 2040, pursuing offshore wind energy buildouts, and even prohibiting new gas stations in some small California cities.
And while it’s not clear to what extent a green hydrogen plant will help or harm, it’s also unclear if such a plant is even currently doable. Though the Department of Water and Power has openly acknowledged the hydrogen technology may not be immediately ready, the city has been equally open about its ultimate goal to burn 100 percent green hydrogen—and it’s already eyeing the conversion of other natural gas plants along the coast and in Sun Valley. What’s more: The Department of Water and Power director Jason Rondou told the Times that at least 30 percent of green hydrogen should be ready to burn on day one. This has done little to appease critics’ concerns regarding explosion risks, public health ramifications, and climate impact dangers.
Though the vote to move forward with the project’s development was unanimous, Councilwomen Traci Park and Katy Young Yaroslavsky’s decision directly hinged on the inclusion of a motion requiring the Department of Water and Power to examine alternatives while engaging with community concerns, particularly communities close to the plant.
Yaroslavsky noted ongoing skepticism about the plan, but called the next stage an opportunity to “collectively gather more information and understand its risks and its alternatives.”
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