Hayward power plant gets OK to restart after explosion

HAYWARD — The California Energy Commission will allow the Russell City Energy Center to restart, despite opposition from Hayward officials and residents, who said they feared for public safety after an explosion and fire rocked the power plant.

The blast at 3862 Depot Road on May 27 was so powerful it sent a 15-pound metal chunk through the roof of an unoccupied trailer at a transitional housing center for people experiencing homelessness, some 1,200 feet away.

Another piece of metal weighing 51 pounds landed at the city’s Water Pollution Control Facility at 3700 Enterprise Ave.

The Russell center, which is operated by Calpine Corporation of Houston, has been closed since then. On Thursday, the commission unanimously approved a request from Calpine to resume operations, though at roughly half its energy-generating capacity.

Commissioners said the center needed to get back up and running because anticipated heat waves will strain the electrical grid.

The drought also has reduced the amount of power that hydroelectric plants can generate, Commission Chair David Hochschild said.

“We are under a period of enormous stress under the grid,” he said.

The plant helps power western Alameda County and the Peninsula; it’s capable of producing enough energy to supply 600,000 households, according to Calpine’s website.

Hayward Mayor Barbara Halliday, City Manager Kelly McAdoo and Hayward fire Chief Garrett Contreras said the facility should remain closed until the cause of the explosion and fire are determined.

They also asked for a full assessment and public review of the safety risks and potential environmental and health impacts of the plant to be completed before it was again generating energy.

“Frankly, we are astonished and appalled by this recommendation (to restart),” Halliday said, adding that it could put Hayward residents at risk.

McAdoo accused Calpine of not being transparent about conditions at the plant and noted that a June 2019 audit by the California Public Utilities Commission identified 14 safety problems, including corrosive pipes, oil leaks at a steam turbine — the same one that exploded — and improper storage of equipment.

The report was never shared with Hayward officials, who only learned about it after the blast, which happened just before midnight and led to public evacuations around a one-mile area.

“Had this explosion occurred at another time of day there likely would have been injury or even death,” McAdoo said.

Calpine’s Russell City Energy Center, which began operating in August 2013, is generally needed to deliver power during peak periods of energy demand, primarily in summer months.

The report from June 2019 recommended that emergency drills be carried out annually with outside agencies, such as the Hayward Fire Department. The city was not told about the recommendation, McAdoo said.

Calpine plans to bypass the blown turbine and to generate power through the center’s two natural gas turbines. Geoff Lesh, an engineer with the commission, said he believes the action will cause minimal public risk.

The work should be completed by the end of August, Calpine’s Barbara McBride said.

“We do not know what the root cause of the steam turbine (explosion) was,” she said.

Calpine has brought in an outside investigator to find out what happened. The commission is also carrying out its own investigation.

First responders dispatched to the scene feared that approximately 45 hydrogen tubes near where the explosion happened could have caused a second blast. Every Hayward firefighter was at the scene and firefighters from Oakland and Alameda County provided mutual aid, meaning they were available to handle Hayward calls.

“What happened out there was unacceptable,” resident Karen Douglas said about the blast and fire.

Walt Fujii, whose family has lived in Hayward since 1918, said he accepted the need to generate electricity. “But at what cost?” Fujii said, adding safety should not be compromised.

About 45 people emailed the commission before the meeting. Nearly all opposed reopening the Russell City Energy Center. Commissioners discussed the center’s future for approximately six hours.

Along with allowing for it to reopen, commissioners said they wanted regular updates on the center and will facilitate cooperation between Calpine and Hayward firefighters, and for the power plant to be more open about allowing safety inspections.

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Author: Peter Hegarty