BESS Signature Drive Continues

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 16, 2023

Signature collecting continues by a group of Morro Bay residents pushing a ballot measure designed to force a vote of the people before the City Council can approve a permit for the world’s largest battery facility to be built at the old power plant property.

Vistra Energy of Texas, owners of the long closed Morro Bay Power Plant, is proposing to build a 600 megawatt Battery Energy Storage System or BESS on some 22 acres of the over 100-acre power plant property. It would go where several huge oil storage tanks used to be situated back when the plant burned fuel oil and diesel. The plant switched over to natural gas in the mid-1990s and the oil tanks were removed around 2011.

“Signature collecting is going very well and we are super impressed with the energy exuded by our volunteers canvassing neighborhoods,” reads an update by Judy Setting with the ballot measure group, Preserve Estero Bay. “If you haven’t joined in, please do! Let’s keep those pens moving!”

She added, “Initiatives are available at Buttercup on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. You can sign, volunteer to collect signatures or sit and chat.”

The group meets at 10 a.m. Tuesdays at the Buttercup Bakery, 430 Morro Bay Blvd. Volunteers also man an information/sign-up booth from 2-4 p.m. Thursdays at Spencer’s Market, 2650 N. Main St.; and Saturdays at Albertson’s Market, 730 Quintana Rd., from noon-2 p.m., in addition to volunteers going door-to-door.

The ballot measure, which has yet to be given an official name, was given a title and summary by the City Attorney’s Office back on May 16. According to City Clerk Dana Swanson, the proponents have 180 days or until the middle of October to collect 815 valid signatures of registered Morro Bay voters. Anyone outside of Morro Bay, no matter how strongly they might feel about the BESS project, is ineligible to sign the petition, let alone vote on it.

Once the petitions are turned in, the City Clerk will validate the signatures and then present it to the City Council. That’s when the first big decision will have to be made.

“The Council can either call an election,” Swanson told Estero Bay News, “or adopt the ordinance as presented.”

“The Council,” Swanson added, “may also request a report of the effects of the proposed initiative in accordance with Election Code §9212, that would be presented to the Council at the time prescribed by the legislative body but no later than 30 days after the results are certified. At the time the election is called, dates are established for filing of arguments for and against the initiative, as well as the City Attorney’s impartial analysis, all of which are printed in the voters’ guide.”

So if the petition drive is successful and presuming the City Council doesn’t simply accept it as written but decides to put it to voters, the earliest regular election would be the March 5, 2024 Presidential Primary Election. After that it would be the November 2024 General Election, unless the City Council decides to hold a special election on the matter.

The BESS Project is currently under environmental impact review by a consultant hired by the City and paid for by Vistra. That EIR is expected to be released before the end of this year, and it remains to be seen if the City Council would take it up prior to an election, should the ballot measure makes it that far.

What does it do? According to the City Attorney’s summary, “The measure prohibits, unless otherwise approved by a majority of City of Morro Bay voters, any change to the land use designations under Plan Morro Bay, of Visitor-Serving Commercial and/or Commercial/Recreational Fishing, in effect on the Approval Date, for approximately 103 acres of real property.”

Plan Morro Bay is the name of the approved General Plan/Local Coastal Program Update the City took nearly a decade to complete that was approved by the City Council in May 2021, and by the Coastal Commission in August 2021. 

If the ballot measure passes, it won’t necessarily mean the BESS Project is dead, just that the City must seek voter approval in order to change the property’s zoning to accommodate the BESS Project. 

Normally, when big projects require zoning changes the change is included as part of the project proposal that goes to decision makers for approval.

Instead, the ballot measure requires the City to do whatever is necessary to change the General Plan/LCP to comply with the voter initiative and let the people vote on whether a BESS is right for their community.

It’s a roundabout though not unusual way for opponents of a controversial project to take control and stop it. A similar path was taken in 1990 with a ballot measure (Measure H) that limited the acreage able to be used for a proposed shopping center on ranchlands east of Hwy 1 at Morro Bay Boulevard. Though it didn’t exactly prevent the center from being built it severely limited its size, and the property owners dropped the project.

The BESS measure also forces the City to take “all steps reasonably necessary to enforce the measure and to defend the measure against any challenge to its validity,” reads the City Attorney’s summary.

Opponents of the BESS have expressed fears over the volatility of large lithium-ion battery facilities, mainly a concern of them potentially catching fire. 

When lithium-ion batteries overheat, they can combust and when they burn, they let off toxic smoke. Such fires take specialty firefighting equipment to fight as well.

Opponents worry about the nearness of Morro Bay High to the BESS location, as well as the Embarcadero, which is the City’s main tourist area and on busy holidays and most days in summer can have thousands of people milling about. And at the beach, people would be forced to go towards the fire to escape it.

Vistra has said the design and engineering they will use for the BESS, including an extensive fire suppression system, makes it safe for the location.

Vistra has a similar facility at its Moss Landing Power Plant in Moss Landing, Calif. Moss Landing and Morro Bay were part of a purchase of California power stations formerly owned by Duke Energy North America, which went out of business around 2007. Duke’s plants were purchased by LS Power, which soon after was absorbed by Dynegy. 

That company merged with Vistra a few years later, in a multi-billion dollar deal. In 2014, Vistra retired the 1950s and ‘60s-era power plant. 

The Moss Landing plant, which DUKE was able to repower in the early 2000s with a modern facility (the same thing it had planned for Morro Bay), is still operational. The sister plant to Morro Bay in Moss Landing, with two smoke stacks, is being torn down by Vistra.

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