Redondo Beach AES Power Plant

Redondo Beach’s issue of the AES power plant is one that will continue for many years. Screenshot from EasyReaderNews.com

Since moving to the South Bay I have been the editor of the Redondo Beach section of the Easy Reader News. With that came the responsibility of covering their city government – including council, school board and everything in between. During that time I have become intrenched in the local issue of the the AES power plant, an issue that has pitted council members, citizens and a mega corporation against each other. I have written three cover stories on the subject and have covered and written about more than 18 city council meetings that have sometimes lasted until 2 a.m. I have covered it in multiple different ways while meeting an early afternoon deadline the next day.

The Redondo Beach AES power plant at night. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Will the initiative intended to rid Redondo Beach of the AES power plant help create a seaside park or a litigation nightmare?

Originally published on Aug. 30, 2012 in the Easy Reader News

Melanie Cohen stood outside the north Redondo Albertson’s grocery store on a recent Saturday afternoon holding a clipboard. She came prepared for the heat. She wore sunglasses and a khaki hat and brought a fold-up chair and a stack of green pamphlets.

Her aim was to rid the city’s waterfront of the AES power plant.

“Sir,” she asked a man walking into the store pushing a cart. “Are you registered to vote in Redondo Beach?”

He ignored her and continued into the store. Behind her a NoPowerPlant.com poster leaned against the grocery store wall. On her chest, Cohen publicized her cause more urgently with a pin encircled by the words, “It’s now or never.”

Melanie Cohen convinces Ed Cervantes to sign the petition outside of Albertsons on August 19. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

She targeted the next patron who made eye contact. Yes, he said, he was a registered voter. She held up a laminated pamphlet that activist groups Building a Better Redondo and NoPowerPlant have been using to argue repowering of the power plant isn’t necessary, along with a flyer that said “Help Get the Initiative On the March Ballot.”

He listened. Cohen explained that the AES power plant has a single electricity-selling contract that will expire in 2018. After it expires, she said, the plant could be retired and the area rezoned to build a park. But only, Cohen argued, if citizens like this man petitioned their local government to essentially force AES to stop producing power in Redondo.

“The bottom line is that we don’t need a power plant here in town,” Cohen said. “It’s time for the residents to have their say because the City Council believes collaboration is the way…If AES really had the residents in mind, they would allow for the ceasing of their power pollution.”

The man signed. As of two weeks ago – the last time a number was released – 1,500 people had signed the petitions. The initiative drive has two more weeks to obtain the 9,000 signatures necessary to go to a citywide public vote.

There are wildly varying interpretations of what scenarios are likely to play out should this citizen-led effort to outlaw power generation on the Redondo Beach waterfront become successful.

Councilman Bill Brand, who founded the South Bay Parkland Conservancy nearly a decade ago and has been the most vocal advocate for ridding the waterfront of AES, argues that the city has a once in a lifetime opportunity to clear its coastline of power stacks and replace it with a combination of commercial development and open space.

iPhone photo of the City Council Power plant meeting #rbpowerplant

iPhone photo of the City Council Power plant meeting #rbpowerplant

“There have been three or four opportunities in the last 120 years to eliminate power generation on the waterfront and the blight it creates,” Brand said. “This is our opportunity. If we miss it, we will have a power plant for the next 50 years, and all the pollution that comes with it.”

But the rest of the City Council and Mayor Mike Gin believe that the initiative, if passed, will draw the city into a long litigation nightmare whose unintended consequence would be to insure that the power plant remains on the city’s waterfront in its current form indefinitely.

Councilman Steve Aspel says a fundamental point that activists ignore is that the power plant is on private property and AES thus possesses rights to the land that it will fiercely protect.

“Without a doubt, they will sue. Our legacy could be a lawsuit and the loss of millions of dollars, rather than the legacy of a park,” Aspel said. “AES is under no obligation to tear down the power plant…If we don’t work collaboratively with them, we are not going to get anything.”

Building a Better Redondo president Jim Light argues that city leaders, aside from Brand, are acting out of fear and without vision. He foresees some combination of commercial development, museums, art galleries, a park and possibly a marine research center for the area.

 “I would personally, if I were the City Council, work with schools like Cal State Northridge to attract a marine science program or expand on the SEA Lab,” Light said. “That would take the city getting involved and getting proactive. My vision is we create something like Woods Hole or the Scripps Institute in Redondo and put it on the map as an oceanic research facility.

“They need to establish the vision and put policies in place to make sure that vision comes to reality instead of cowering in fear over a lawsuit,” Light said.

AES Southland president Eric Pendergraft has a problem with this vision. AES owns the property, which is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“You know, it may sound good on the surface, but it’s not economically feasible,” Pendergraft said. “It’s likely going to cost taxpayers a fortune. It’s going to stall progress, likely resulting in the existing structure staying in place. It’s a bad alternative.”

Pendergraft sees another scenario: a consensus process in which some of the 53-acre power plant property is at least partially converted into public-serving uses, possibly a small park, and the power plant is either downsized or eliminated, depending on power grid needs as determined by the state.

But he is furious at the notion that a park or other uses could be forced on the site without AES’s cooperation.

“We are certainly firm in our belief in private property rights, and this initiative completely disregards them,” Pendergraft said. “I think people should be concerned about this. Most homeowners wouldn’t want someone to tear down their home and put a park on their property, and from our perspective this is exactly what they are trying to do.”

Pendergraft said that AES will vigorously defend its property rights should the initiative pass and power generation be removed as an accepted use on the AES Redondo site.

“We are not just going to sit by and let our property be completely devalued and have zoning forced upon us that certainly does not enable us to move forward with what we think is a much more viable plan, and certainly does not provide enough economic incentive to do any development on the property,” he said. “We are not opposed to a vision for the site that has open space and recreational opportunities and things that are visitor-serving and serve the community. But this initiative is not the right way to go about it.”

Continue to part 2: Salt and power