Morro Bay Power Plant a ‘Life After People’ Relic

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

July 30, 2022

Photo from drone footage taken by Dean Sullivan

It was a marvel of its time, burning fuel oils to produce electricity and reliably helping power California’s growth and prosperity for over 50 years.

But now the Morro Bay Power Plant, which closed in 2014, looks more like an episode of the TV show, “Life After People,” with crumbling interior roads, and plants bursting through the pavement, as the dune scrub vegetation reclaims large areas of the property.

Its once bustling, power generation building sits empty, a home for pigeons and seagulls that plant owner Vistra says it can’t keep out, and whose guano litters the floors and piles up on the pipes, so much so that a group of local residents — this reporter included — on a tour had to wear filter masks inside the building. 

Vistra arranged a series of tours for city officials and selected members of the public as the environmental review for its proposed Battery Energy Storage System or BESS gets underway with the City. 

The BESS is a 22-acre 600 megawatt facility that if built will be one of the largest in the world. The current record holder — is Vistra’s 400 MW BESS at the Moss Landing Power Plant, which currently has a third phase of expansion under construction, bringing the site to 750 MW by next summer.

Brad Watson, Vistra’s director of community affairs, leads the tour with his team — including Meranda Cohn, Claudia Morrow and David Yeager. Vistra’s team is also dismantling the 1960s-era Moss Landing Power Plant, work that is ongoing now.

Vistra committed to dismantle the MBPP and its three iconic stacks, signing an agreement with the City to do so by 2028 or pay the City $3 million cash.

Plant Was Part of 1950s Boon

The plant was part of a 1950s energy boon, fueled by the discovery of natural gas and oil in the Central Valley. Watson said Pacific Gas & Electric spent a billion dollars on six power plants on the Coast. In Morro Bay they bought a former Navy Amphibious Training Base that the Navy abandoned after World War II and sold to the County for $1.

Construction of the plant’s Units 1 & 2 with one stack was completed in 1954 and Units 3 & 4 and two more stacks were added in the early 60s. The plant originally ran on oil and natural gas, switching full time to gas in 1995. 

Deregulation Caused Sale

Duke Energy North America — seeking to be a part of California’s experiment with deregulation of the energy industry — bought four of PG&E’s gas plants in 1998 — Morro Bay, Moss Landing, Pittsburgh and Oakland — and ran them for several years, while simultaneously seeking to upgrade with new more efficient so-called “combined cycle” plants. 

It succeeded at Moss with a plant that is still operational, but the upgrade proposal failed in Morro Bay.

The plant has changed hands a couple of times through purchases and mergers, with Vistra of Irving, Texas the current owners.

With an eye on getting in on California’s renewable energy future, Vistra’s BESS is slated to be built on the site where the huge fuel tanks sat before being removed in 2011. 

Oil tankers uploaded their cargo of fuel oil, kerosene or even diesel fuels to be stored in the plant’s tanks, and at another storage tank farm located atop a hill off Hwy 41 just east of town. Those tanks too have been removed.

The offshore moorings and underground/undersea loading pipes have also been removed.

Touring the BESS Site

The tour strolled along the interior access road running atop of the old containment berms that used to surround the fuel tanks. It’s where the BESS’ three battery buildings would go and the one site on the plant where the State found small levels of pollutants in the soil. 

Members of the tour are among the town’s leaders and well versed in the plant’s history and the BESS, and they engage the Vistra group with a lot of questions. 

Among the first questions was one about fire hazards, and the potential for the planned lithium-ion batteries to catch fire, which almost happened at Moss Landing.

Yeager went through a lengthy explanation of what happened at Moss and how a smoke censor detected low-levels of smoke below its specified design level, which improperly triggered a fire suppression response that shut the place down. 

Basically, the batteries worked as designed, and they’ve learned a lot from the incident with the suppression system, he said. 

Moss Landing BESS is now repaired and back on line, he said, with several design issues being corrected. What they learned there will be incorporated with the Morro Bay BESS’ design.

Questions arose over the BESS’ role in what appears to be a re-industrialization of Morro Bay — where a proposed 3-gigawatt offshore floating wind farm is being worked on now by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). 

The energy from that massive facility — three separate lease sites covering nearly 400 square miles — is proposed to be brought ashore at Morro Bay for connection to the power grid.

The BESS is completely separate from the wind project, Watson assures. 

But the existing substation at the plant, owned by PG&E, is insufficient to handle all that energy and Yeager said it would likely have to be retooled and more substations may have to be added in the future.

We walk along the northern edge of the roughly 100-acre property, with the heavily wooded Morro Creek meandering along just outside the boundary fence, a bramble of poison oak, willows, pines and lots of wildlife habitat. It’s also near the area where the City plans to place its Water Recycling Facility injection wells.

Before walking towards the enormous plant and its trident of smoke stacks, Watson points out a flat area next to the substation where future equipment could be sited. It’s where the plant’s natural gas connection once stood.

So the power plant is no longer even connected to its fuel source. 

A Powerless Hulk

The once integral part of the State’s energy grid no longer has electric power to the generating building, so everyone was handed a small flashlight before the tour started.

Inside it’s eerie, spooky like a horror movie set, with empty offices, shiny steam pipes running every which way with big gate valves, and shadows, spooky shadows everywhere.

Big blue generators and steam turbines loom half in the dark, lit just by sunlight streaming through the open rollup doors. More than one tour member commented that the plant would make a great set for a movie. 

Bird droppings cover the ground and pipes, and the plant’s two control rooms sit idle like an unused sci-fi film set. 

Hanging from the back of the control room for Units 3 and 4 is the famous Christmas Star that first PG&E and then Duke would hang from the center stack from Thanksgiving through New Years for decades, ending in 2003. It was the biggest Christmas Star west of the Mississippi River, according to the foreman of the crew that came to rig the star in 2003. 

Into the Belly of the Beast

Down two flights of stairs the tour goes into the belly of the plant, it’s basement. That’s where the seawater for the cooling system came in pumped via underground pipes from the intake building across the Embarcadero.

It’s that cooling system and the toll it took on larval marine life that killed Duke’s repowering plan and probably why none of the subsequent owners tried to finish what Duke started.

The State Water Resources Control Board passed regulations that called for the end of so-called “once through cooling,” or simply put, the use of seawater or freshwater to cool steam. In Morro Bay’s case, it used water taken from inside the harbor.

It’s also a big reason that PG&E decided to close Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant when the licenses for its two reactors run out in 2024 and 2025. 

Diablo’s substation and grid connection may also play a big part in the system that will be needed for the renewable energy push underway now. 

But Diablo’s final chapter has yet to be written, as there’s a movement afoot to extend the plant’s life for as much as 10 years, as more and more wind and solar generation are built, and battery and potentially hydroelectric energy storage facilities are developed.

Storage is the key to the big energy grid transformation that’s underway in California, to even out the availability of spotty wind and solar power generation.

Entering the Stacks

Watson leads the tour outside and into the northern, and oldest smoke stack, which is a chimney lined with bricks. Looking up through the interior of the stack is dizzying and more questions arise.

Can the bricks be recycled? Maybe. 

Can it be imploded? No, there won’t be an implosion due to the proximity to the PG&E switchyard and Embarcadero. 

These days they have big diamond grinding machines that grind the concrete towers into dust. 

All the concrete on site will be recycled, Watson explained, and used to fill the deep basement hole after the 16-story power building is removed. 

The tour gave a glimpse of just how massive a job removing the plant will be.

Just what the plant’s future will be is somewhat unknown. If the BESS is not approved, Vistra doesn’t have a back up plan for the property.

It’s agreement with the City to remove the powerhouse and stacks has a relatively inexpensive out — a $3 million one-time payment vs. an unknown amount, perhaps $20 million, $30 million or more, to tear it all down.

It covers about 14 acres of what would be valuable real estate if it can be re-developed. Watson said whatever it ultimately becomes will be decided by the City and the residents.

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