In late February, the newly-formed Orange County Power Authority made a bold promise.

A highly controversial seawater desalination plant, proposed to operate in Huntington Beach, would use 100% renewable energy per a new agreement between the project’s proposer, Poseidon Water, and the agency. 

The agreement between Poseidon Water and the agency would “further enhance the facility’s environmental sustainability,” according to a joint news release from both sides. 

But the agreement isn’t binding. 

“This (agreement) does not obligate the parties to enter into an agreement or customer relationship,” the contract states. “The (agreement) may be terminated by either party, with thirty days’ advanced written notice.”

Some question what the agreement is good for, beyond tasking the two entities with meeting once a month to explore how the 100% renewable energy goal might be achieved. 

The agreement requires both parties to meet monthly, and required the signing of a non-disclosure agreement for their negotiations. 

“What it really says is they’ll meet with them monthly to … discuss things,” said Ray Hiemstra of the OC Coastkeeper environmental advocacy group, which opposes Poseidon’s project. “And then enter into a non-disclosure agreement — let’s hide what’s really going on, no one can really talk about it.”

He went as far as to call the highly-publicized partnership a “sham.” 

Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni, who has represented the desalination proposal at regulatory hearings over the years, deferred Voice of OC requests for comment to company spokesperson Jessica Jones.

In an emailed response to questions about the agreement on Tuesday, Jones acknowledged it’s indeed non-binding “as the project has not yet received the necessary approvals to put shovels in the ground.”

However, Jones claimed the agreement between Orange County Power Authority and Poseidon Water “guarantees” that both groups “will work toward a binding agreement.”

“We are proud that the Huntington Beach Seawater Desalination Facility will be the first desalination plant in the western hemisphere to be powered entirely by renewable energy,” Jones said, adding that “we continue to explore innovative ways to enhance the facility’s environmental sustainability, which is already guaranteed to have zero carbon footprint.”

As to the implications of the agreement’s non-disclosure element to government transparency, Jones did not respond.

Brian Probolsky, the agency’s CEO, did not return requests for comment. 

The Poseidon Desalination Plant stands behind the Huntington State Beach on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. (Photo/Victoria Baroody)

Proponents of Poseidon’s $1 billion project say it would provide a drought-proof source of local water amidst the threat of climate change, as well as construction jobs, while opponents call it a boondoggle, pushed by lobbyists and legal battles, that would alter the coastal ecosystem and hike water rates for low-income communities that can’t afford it.

Lawsuits, lobbying, environmental debates, and opposition campaigns have all been part of Poseidon’s 20-year fight, set to culminate in May when it goes to California Coastal Commissioners for final regulatory approval. 

The Power Authority has also been dogged by concerns from environmentalists and transparency activists over its first year, facing repeated criticisms for a lack of transparency and concerns over its CEO, Brian Probolsky, who lacks any experience in the electricity industry and is still working toward a Bachelor’s degree. 

[Read: OC Clean Power Agency’s First Year Sees an Executive Resignation, Transparency Concerns]

Coastal Commissioners were initially supposed to vote on the necessary permit for Poseidon’s project in March. But the day the renewable energy agreement was announced, the Coastal Commission hearing was pushed back to May, at the company’s request. 

“I support Community Choice Energy. I think the OC Power Authority is the right direction,” Hiemstra said. 

But to Hiemstra, the MOU with Poseidon, “It’s not a good look,.”

The OC Power Authority is the county’s clean energy program, currently led by the cities of Irvine, Huntington Beach, Buena Park, Fullerton and the county government. 

The joint news release also claims that “the project is already guaranteed to have zero carbon footprint through the state’s carbon offset program.”

What that means is the construction of Poseidon’s plant would still emit greenhouse gasses, but Poseidon would “offset” that by purchasing what are called “renewable energy credits” – a controversial environmental mitigation concept known better by critics as “pay to pollute.” 

Companies causing environmental damage with their projects can purchase these credits, which usually involve an environmental health or restoration project offsite or in another location to essentially make up for the pollution caused by their activities. 

A sign for Huntington Beach’s Wetlands Magnolia Marsh stands before the Poseidon Desalination Plant on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. (Photo/Victoria Baroody)

Poseidon’s application for its Coastal Commission permit says the project would indeed offset greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing renewable energy credits. 

During a 2017 State Lands Commission hearing on the Poseidon project, California State Controller Betty Yee questioned whether Poseidon’s carbon offset program would be outdated by the time it reached the Coastal Commission for final approval.

“By the time this facility is built…I think this project has to be a model project within that regard,” Yee said to Poseidon representatives at the hearing. 

She also called for Poseidon to be 100% carbon neutral through construction and operations without purchasing renewable energy credits. 

“All I want to be sure of is that … all options are explored, and that it’s not just about satisfying this by writing a check,” Yee said that year. 

More than four years later, Susan Jordan – a Poseidon critic and organizer of the California Coastal Protection Network – said Poseidon’s renewable energy plans haven’t changed. 

“They submitted the very same plan in 2019 to the (Santa Ana Water Board) and to the Coastal Commission in July of 2021 … they made no changes at all. It still relies on these controversial renewable energy credits,” Jordan said. 

Jordan said any greenhouse gas emission offsets should be done onsite.

“Locally – no offsets out of state, out of country or anywhere else.”

The agreement between Poseidon and the Power Authority also didn’t point out that the company would have been automatically opted in at 100% renewable energy whether they decided to study it or not. 

Huntington Beach City Councilmembers voted to offer 100% renewable energy as the starting rate to their commercial and residential customers, meaning the only way for Posiedon to not receive 100% renewable would be for them to manually switch to one of the less renewable, cheaper programs. 

The 100% renewable rates were also set by the agency’s board of directors months ago, leaving it unclear what there is to negotiate for Poseidon’s pricing. 

Read: OC Residents Face Electricity Rate Hike As New Clean Energy Agency Prepares To Launch

Mike Posey, the agency’s representative for Huntington Beach, declined to comment, referring reporters to his comments in the press release that didn’t address the question on what there was to negotiate, but praised the agreement. 

“My fellow Huntington Beach City Council Members and I recently selected 100% renewable energy, through OCPA, as our default plan for customers – taking bold steps to address climate change,” Posey said.  “With this project located in Huntington Beach, I am happy to see that Poseidon Water has also committed to work toward making their project even more sustainable.” 

The OC Power Authority begins providing power to their commercial customers in just over a week on April 1, with a residential rollout scheduled for October. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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