The City of Morro Bay has begun what promises to be a lengthy review of a proposed battery storage facility at the Morro Bay Power Plant, as the plant’s latest owners at last show their hand on the facility’s future.

Meranda Cohn, Director of Media Relations & Corporate Affairs for plant owner Vistra Energy, said, “Customers in California continue to express interest in battery energy storage options, and Vistra Energy believes there will continue to be potential for these projects across the state.

“With that in mind, Vistra has taken the first steps in anticipation of potential future development of a battery system at the company’s retired Morro Bay Power Plant by applying for an interconnection and taking the initial application steps for California Environmental Quality Act permitting,” she said.

Morro Bay Power Plant Battery

Those first steps under CEQA include applying to the City of Morro Bay for a land-use permit and a coastal development permit (LUP and CDP respectively), for a massive 200-megawatt battery storage facility housed in a large building sandwiched between a Pacific Gas & Electric substation and the power plant building. 

In Vistra’s permit application on file at the planning department, the Irving, Texas company said the battery plant stores renewable energy when produced, to even out the time lapses from when wind and sun energy are plentiful and when the power grid needs the power. 

It’s one of the big reliability-issues raised by critics of renewable energy — that it isn’t always available when needed the most. 

Called the “Vistra Energy Morro Bay Battery Energy Storage System” (BESS for short), the proposal is to build a 45,000 square-foot, two-story building (90,000 total floor area), housing 60,000 “battery modules arrayed in 2,240 “battery racks.”

They’ll use either lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt batteries or lithium-iron-phosphate [lithium-ion] batteries, each with its own room, with fire barriers and safety systems, according to the application. 

Storing high voltage electricity requires converting from AC to DC current, and then converting it back to AC for transmission over the existing 500,000-volt wires leaving the plant.

The facility will also need a new substation/switching yard, which would cover another 48,000 square-feet (218 feet by 228 feet). According to Vistra, the total size of the project is some 170,000 square-feet (4.2 acres) out of the plant property’s 107 acres.

It will take about 18 months to build and have up to 200 workers on the job at the height of construction, according to Vistra’s application. 

When operational, it would operate 24-hours a day, 365-days a year, but have just five permanent employees. They will use the plant’s existing office building and other facilities. The project will be completed in 2024 if all goes as planned.

According to Vistra, BESS will have a lifespan of 20 years. The project is being planned and managed by the EMC Planning Group of Monterey. 

The application didn’t catch the City completely unaware.

“We recently learned that Vistra has been permitted for a battery project in Moss Landing,” City Manager Scott Collins said. “With that in mind, it’s not entirely a huge surprise that they may want to pursue a project like this in Morro Bay.”

The application, filed on Nov. 6, marks the first outward sign of what the plant owners (Dynegy/Vistra) want to do with the power plant that was completed in 1964. 

Morro Bay Power Plant was a vital part of the state’s power grid, coming online during summer heatwaves and times of high demand, until Dynegy decommissioned it in 2014.

Dynegy has been advertising the plant property for sale, with no takers, though some interested parties have approached City officials. 

On a couple of occasions, citizen committees have been formed to envision the plant’s future, with redevelopment ideas including a resort hotel, a casino, a park with open space, and an event center, among others.

And whether Vistra follows through on the project is not certain.

“While we are uncertain as to whether this particular project will move forward,” Vistra’s Cohn said, “Vistra believes the installation of an energy storage system at the company’s Morro Bay site could provide reliable support for the grid and help enable California to reach its renewable energy goals.”