- Voice of San Diego - https://www.voiceofsandiego.org -

There’s Nothing Strange About a Water Authority Buying and Storing Power

For public agencies, one of the easiest things to do is to keep doing the same things the same way and keep your head down to avoid attention.

lettertoeditor [1]That’s not what the San Diego County Water Authority does.

It leans into the complexities inherent in natural resource issues, continually seeking opportunities and innovations that will serve the region’s ratepayers for decades to come. The Water Authority’s highest good is delivering a safe and reliable water supply at a reasonable cost, and it works toward that goal every day.

That’s exactly what the public should expect – consistent day-in-and-day-out performance. However, the Water Authority’s responsibilities also include agile and visionary thinking about the future. That approach is complex and requires careful analysis. The process includes significant study and debate. It’s rarely simple and never easy.

But it seems that the Voice of San Diego takes a shallow, slanted and even arrogant view of the Water Authority’s role and that process in Ry Rivard’s Sept. 15 story, “The Water Authority’s Big, Strange Battery Bet [2].” From the headline down, VOSD seems determined to mislead readers into believing that the Water Authority has decided to gamble on energy because it “wants to” build a large pumped storage project in East County – and that things aren’t going well.

So let’s anchor this issue in reality.

The Water Authority and our partner the city of San Diego are investigating a potential energy storage project at the newly expanded San Vicente Reservoir. It has the potential to serve the region with 500 megawatts of energy storage capacity – a major increase that could help maximize the use of renewable energy sources. It also could generate revenues that would reduce operating expenses for regional water operations, a benefit to everyone in the region.

While the story leaves the unmistakable impression that the Water Authority is a novice in the energy sector, energy has been an increasingly important part of the agency’s efforts for more than a decade. The Water Authority in 2012 completed the largest pumped storage project nationwide in nearly 30 years at Lake Hodges [3]. That 40-megawatt project helps the region meet peak power needs by generating on-demand electricity as water flows downhill from Olivenhain Reservoir to Lake Hodges.

In addition, the Water Authority generates power at an in-line turbine at a pipeline in the Mira Mesa area, and at major solar arrays at the Kearny Mesa headquarters, the Escondido Operations Center and the major water treatment plant north of San Marcos.

There is nothing unusual about water agencies creating or storing power. The state Legislature has explicitly given the Water Authority broad powers in the energy sector. In fact, around the country, countless agencies are involved in both water and power because the resources are inextricably linked.

The Water Authority has made no decision about whether to build the San Vicente energy storage project. Staff, under direction of the board, is investigating the options – doing the due diligence that ratepayers deserve – and the board hasn’t determined whether it makes sense to move ahead.

It’s not at all uncommon for a public works project of this scope to be vetted and refined over several years, or even a decade. The concept for a seawater desalination project in San Diego County was conceived in the early 1990s, some 20 years before it became a reality in Carlsbad last winter.

In the case of the potential San Vicente project, it really only came into sharp focus over the past couple years as the San Vicente Dam Raise reached completion and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station went offline. The story pointedly notes that the city of San Diego and the Water Authority haven’t found another partner to help shoulder the costs, hardly a fair critique when we haven’t completed the analysis that would position us to initiate discussions with other potential partners.

We are looking at this project (and others) from every financial and practical angle. Questions about project necessity, cost and other fundamentals are precisely what the board members have been wrestling with for months.

Indeed, the process is going very well. The board is getting to the point of being able to determine whether it makes sense to move toward developing the San Vicente energy project. Should that happen, there will still be decision points along to way so we can react to changing conditions.

Rather than being a failure, as VOSD’s jaundiced view suggests, this effort is an example of good government: These deliberations and investigations by the Water Authority are important, healthy and necessary. We should encourage public agencies to think big and consider innovative solutions. While not every idea will come to fruition, it’s only through visionary thinking and carefully exploring possibilities that we can best shape our region’s future.

Mark Weston is chair of the Water Authority’s Board of Directors. He lives in Poway. Weston’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here [4].