City Taking Comments on BESS Project EIR

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 1, 2022

The first signs of life on a project to install the world’s largest battery energy storage facility in Morro Bay have sprouted up, with residents still having a few days left to submit their opinions about the environmental review.

Vistra Energy’s “Battery Energy Storage System” or BESS project seeks to build a 600-megawatt, lithium-ion battery facility, on 22 acres of the Morro Bay Power Plant property. It would be housed in a trio of 90,000 square foot buildings that would rise about 35-40 feet.

It’s being sited where there used to be a fuel oil tank farm at the bayside property.

It’s also the same location on the plant’s 100 or so acres, where Duke Energy North America wanted to build a 1,200 MW combined cycle natural gas power plant but failed to get a permit after seven years of trying. Duke eventually dropped the project in about 2007, and soon sold all of its California power plants. Vistra now owns it, and the power station was closed in 2014.

On June 3 the City sent out a “Notice of Preparation” or NOP indicating that it intended to move forward with an environmental impact report (EIR) and was holding a scoping meeting on June 21 to discuss the project’s EIR.

Essentially a NOP is a chance for the public to express the things they are concerned about and that should be addressed in the EIR, which is conducted in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA.

The scoping meeting was being held just a couple of months after the City Council awarded a contract to conduct the EIR to Rincon Consultants. The original EIR contract was approved in March, and has already been amended a couple of times. 

The original amount was not to exceed $158,500 but before the ink was dry, it was amended in April and jumped to $281,700. A second amendment has also been approved, bringing the total for the EIR consultant to over $304,900. 

All of these costs will be paid by Vistra, which signed an agreement with the City to cover all costs in the review of its project.

So while not exactly a blank check, taxpayers can be assured that they are not paying for this project’s review.

That agreement passed last January had the company paid an initial $197,400 up front and another $175,000 has been paid since then.

Full details on how to submit public comments are available online see: https://www.morrobayca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/16703/Morro-Bay-BESS-NOP and also noted below.

Such scoping efforts are one of the first steps in the environmental review of a big project like the BESS. Rincon will compile the comments and they will be submitted for public review again, before the planning commission or city council or possibly both. 

Once the scope of the EIR is established, the true evaluation of the environmental impacts begins.

A draft EIR would be next item on the list, which could take from a few months to a year or more to complete, though Rincon’s contract lists Dec. 31, 2022 as the end date for the contract. 

That draft EIR document will also be bantered about and must get approval from the City Council and the Coastal Commission, which has final say over anything the City decides on this project, including overriding a possible City Council denial. 

Vistra has estimated the cost for the BESS at about $490 million, which would add some $490,000 a year to the City’s coffers in just property taxes alone. (At $490 million the BESS would pay $4.9 million in property taxes annually with the City getting 10% of that.)

It is being proposed as the State’s pushes for wind and solar energy to replace fossil fuel and nuclear power generating stations. It is also dependent at least in part on whether the federal government’s proposed offshore floating wind energy farm gets built in federal waters about 30 miles off San Simeon. 

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management or BOEM is permitting that project, and neither the City nor the State have much to say about it even though the proposal is to bring at least some of the 3 gigawatts the Biden Administration is eyeing for the 399-square mile, so-called “Morro Bay Call Area” ashore here. (The Coastal Commission recently decided the wind farm didn’t violate the Coastal Act.)

Public comments on Vistra’s BESS EIR can be submitted to Morro Bay Senior Planner Cindy Jacinth, via email at jacinth@morrobayca.gov or by mailing written comments to: City of Morro Bay, Community Development Department, 955 Shasta Ave., Morro Bay, CA 93442. The deadline is July 3.

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