Coolidge Generating Station

The Coolidge Generating Station will be doubling in size over the next few years in order to accommodate increasing energy needs in the region. The increase in electric power will support an increase in Salt River Project’s renewables portfolio.

COOLIDGE — A decision by Salt River Project to move ahead with a planned gas power expansion in Coolidge has drawn the ire of environmentalists statewide who question the utility’s commitment to renewable energy.

“We are disappointed SRP decided to go forward with this massive expansion,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Arizona Chapter. “We shouldn’t be spending nearly a billion dollars on a gas plant at a time when we should be moving away from fossil fuels due to climate change and air quality issues.”

The approval for expansion of an existing electric power plant fueled by natural gas comes at a time when Congress is debating various measures that would help pay for renewable infrastructure and move the electric grid off fossil fuels over the next decade.

The expansion, which was announced in August, is designed to accommodate peak energy demands in the Phoenix metro area. The plan calls for more than doubling the number of turbines from 12 to 28 by 2025. SRP has argued that the expansion is necessary for the utility in increasing its solar capacity, as the gas plant will provide a backstop for when renewables can’t generate electricity.

SRP representatives confirmed that the plant is capable of going both online and offline within 10 minutes and that units will primarily run in the evening during the hottest days of the year.

The SRP board decision on Monday was an 8-6 vote; in recent years solar energy advocates such as Randy Miller have run and won seats on the board, which has committed to adding over 2,000 megawatts of renewable capacity to the portfolio by 2025.

“It was a close vote,” Bahr said. “Considering the makeup of the SRP board, I think this really points out that this is not something that is universally embraced by the board itself.”

Nevertheless, Bahr said Monday’s decision called into question SRP’s credibility relative to its stated commitments.

The Coolidge-based advocacy group Rural Arizona Action has also been critical of the project and had been urging members to write letters to the SRP board.

“The Coolidge Expansion Project will lock our region into decades of carbon emissions and regional drought,” RAZA said in a statement on Facebook. “We do not have decades to act on climate change.”

Bahr and others believe that technology for grid-scale solar storage is cost competitive enough to meet the needs of a utility company like SRP, particularly if wind energy and efficiency measures are included.

“They did what they did without really evaluating other options,” Bahr said. “And they said they had ‘internal’ evaluations, but they did not show us their numbers.”

SRP representatives defended the timeline, noting the company had engaged with hundred of stakeholders as part of a four-part webinar series over the summer on both the Coolidge Plant on SRP’s customers’ near-term energy needs. The company also said that building solar battery storage systems equivalent to what the Coolidge Plant will produce could not be completed in the necessary timeframe, and would be more expensive for customers.

“SRP is currently undergoing a robust public process to communicate planned changes to Coolidge Generating Station,” the company said in a statement. “We are committed to ensuring neighbors of the Coolidge plant receive all information associated with project plans and have the opportunity to comment.”

Even as SRP moves forward on the Coolidge plant, the company will soon issue an all-source Requests For Proposal to seek options for additional energy capacity, including renewables.

SRP plans on holding public hearings for the project beginning later this month.

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Aaron Dorman is the Casa Grande reporter at PinalCentral, covering government, schools, business and more. He can be reached at adorman@pinalcentral.com.