The Fate of the Morro Bay Power Plant

Kevin Hurlbutt
July 16, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2014


Fig. 1: The Dynegy Power Plant in Morro Bay from the Pacific Ocean. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Morro Bay is a small coastal town on California's Pacific shore near San Luis Obispo. Its geography is natural and idyllic. It overlooks beautiful ocean vistas and maintains both the allure of foggy fishing ports and quaint, small town America. It has a population of barely more than 10,000. And it is against this backdrop that a new chapter has been opened in the debate between environmental activists and corporations producing electrical power. This argument centers around a power plant located right on the shore in Morro Bay. The discussion about the plant is of particular interest because of its novelty. The plant is not a proposed site for the generation of electrical energy. Nor is it even a plant that is currently operating. It is a non-operation plant that stands cold, quiet, and empty. And its owners, as of now, have no plans of decommissioning the plant. The fight, then, among residents, plant owners, and law makers is what should be done with a massive concrete structure of no utility that obstructs the town's ocean views? The debate continues after nearly a year of inactivity at the plant. [1]

History of Morro Bay and the Plant

The town of Morro Bay was founded in 1870 as a fishing port. It has always been marked by breathtaking natural beauty. It has achieved fame among Pacific coast locations for its 575 foot tall Morro Rock just off shore. It has been nicknames the "Gibraltar of the Pacific". In the 1950's, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) built a power plant in the town. [2] The location was perfect for PG&E. Located on the coast, the company could use the Pacific ocean to dump the excess heat generated at the cite. Local geography made it relatively easy to run power lines from the coast toward more inland sites in the central valley. Bakersfield was a lucrative client of the power plant for much of its lifetime. The people of Morro Bay, too, were excited by the prospect of a new power plant in their town. PG&E would provide around a hundred jobs to townspeople. The city would profit from the taxation of the profitable energy production. It was even reasoned, in the 1950s, that such a plant could put Morro Bay on the map, so to speak, and increase tourism. And so the plant ran for over 50 years, until it was sold by PG&E in 2006 to a company called Dynegy. [3] If the plant were to continue operation past 2014, a number of expensive upgrades could have to be carried out to bring the operation into compliance with state and federal law and Environmental Protection Agency policies enacted after the plant was first constructed. In February of 2014, Dynegy concluded that future revenues were not worth the cost of upgrades, and so the plant was closed. [3]

Where to Go Now: Opinions of the Future of the Plant

Environmental activists and the controlling corporation ultimately agreed that the plant should close, if that conclusions was reached for very different reasons. The citizens of Morro Bay who have no stake in the company and who do not identify as environmental activists are largely ambivalent about the closure. [3] There are definitely some who feel that the plant should have continued operation for the jobs and tax revenue into the city's coffers. However, by early 2014, the plant was normally operating at less than 10% capacity. [2] This, coupled with advances in atomization since 1950, meant that only 44 people were employed at the time of closure.

Most people now recognize that the important point of discussion is what to do with the plant property now. Many residents along with the city council of Morro Bay would like to see the plant torn down by Dynegy, at Dynegy's expense. Dynegy, however, has made it clear that, while they have no plans to continue operation of the plant in the future, they also have no plans of demolishing the structure. Legally, the property is still theirs. Legally, the city has no recourse if their only complain about the plant is aesthetic. [4] It would cost the city three times its annual budget to pay for the demolition itself. [3] And so the plant and its three towers stand in a legal limbo.

Some citizens have expressed a degree of appreciation for the landmark stacks and buildings. While not many are willing to go so fat as to say that they want the plant to remain, they have said that the plant has been an icon of the small, San Luis Obispo town since before they were born. Additionally, some residents even believe that there is an almost artistic synergy in the juxtaposition of the man-made concrete power plant and the monolithic Gibraltar of the Pacific. There is a conversation to be heard between the two if people are willing to listen carefully.


With so many different opinions and options, it is unclear what will be the fate of the Morro Bay power plant. The plant's tale does, however, have something to teach us about industrial aesthetics. There must middle ground the cities can occupy between crying NIMBY and signing away natural vistas in perpetuity. Legislators have to address the aesthetic impact of unused, rundown plants as an environmental impact. Even if the city could seize the property though eminent domain (a tenuous route, at best), they still could not afford to take down the structures. Consumers of electricity in general (and by extension the corporations generating the electricity), owe it to the people of Morro Bay to pay to return their scenic vistas. Its estimated cost of $30 million would require less than a dollar per California citizen this year. That is a debt we can and should repay.

© Kevin Hurlbutt. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] E. Ochs, "Morro Bay City Officials Debate the Future of the Morro Bay Power Plant, New Times San Luis Obisbo, 25 Feb 15.

[2] N. Wilson, "Dynegy Officially Closes the Morro Bay Power Plant," San Luis Obisbo Tribune, 5 Feb 14.

[3] A. Nagourney, "A Power Plant in California Goes Quiet, but Stacks still Tower," New York Times, 23 Nov 14.

[4] P. Weinberg, Environmental Law: Cases and Materials, Revised 3rd Ed. (University Press of America, 2006).