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Friday, Jan. 19, 2007 | The aging South Bay Power Plant’s future appears to rest in the hands of the Chula Vista City Council, a group that expressed skepticism Thursday at building a replacement plant along the city’s bay front, on land being considered for a possible Chargers stadium.

The decision would not only impact the region’s future air quality, but could also buoy Chula Vista’s negotiations with the Chargers.

It’s a decision that San Diego Gas & Electric is heavily influencing.

At a joint four-hour meeting of Chula Vista City Council and the Unified Port of San Diego’s commissioners Thursday afternoon, SDG&E’s Jim Avery said his company has no need to buy power from the existing South Bay plant nor from a replacement.

That announcement left the plant’s opponents giddy and eroded the foundation that LS Power, which operates the South Bay plan, had used to justify building a replacement plant on the waterfront.

LS Power, a private New Jersey-based company, assumed the 706-megawatt plant’s lease from Duke Energy in May. The company has planned to replace the South Bay plant with a more efficient 620-megawatt natural-gas-fired plant that would create enough energy to power about 600,000 homes. The replacement would produce energy more efficiently and free up 115 acres of bay-front land for redevelopment.

Opponents argue that the new plant, while more efficient, would pollute nearly as much as the existing plant, which has operated at 30 percent of its capacity the last two years. LS Power has agreed to not exceed the current plant’s emissions from 2004-2005.

Before Avery spoke, Kevin Johnson, an LS Power vice president, had said his company was counting on SDG&E to give them a long-term contract, buying 25 to 50 percent of the plant’s power. The contract would be a vital part of financing the plant’s estimated $400 million cost.

But Avery unequivocally told council members and port commissioners that SDG&E has no plans to buy power from a South Bay replacement. As the new plant is currently proposed, Avery said, “it does not meet our long-term resource needs.” SDG&E does not need local plants that provide the region’s base power loads, Avery said.

Even if a delay impacted the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink, a 120-mile transmission line bringing potentially 1,000 megawatts from Imperial County, neither the South Bay plant nor its replacement would be needed, Avery said. SDG&E wants to eliminate the need to use inefficient plants such as the existing facility, he said.

“This is a huge cost to our customers,” he said. “It costs our customers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.”

The Unified Port of San Diego purchased the South Bay plant and the 160 acres surrounding it in 1999 with the intent of demolishing the plant and opening up western Chula Vista’s bay front for redevelopment. But when Chula Vista city officials told the port they wanted to retain the financial boost that came from the power plant’s taxes, the port backed off.

The ultimate goal, though, had always been to remove the plant, said Stephen Cushman, a port commissioner.

“My dream was that this plant would come down,” Cushman said. “It was not for a second plant. It was to eliminate the plant.”

LS Power could build the plant without selling to SDG&E, Johnson said. The power could potentially be sold to the city of Los Angeles, Avery suggested.

But Cushman said he had no interest in a Chula Vista bay-front plant that would not benefit the San Diego region.

“Bluntly,” he said, “I don’t really care about Los Angeles.”

LS Power is seeking a 30-year lease with two five-year options from the port district. While Cushman doesn’t support the lease extension, he and Port Commissioner Sylvia Rios said they would follow the desires of Chula Vista City Council.

Two council members — John McCann and Mayor Cheryl Cox — said they opposed building a replacement plant.

“I’m struggling with coming up with a rationale for the continued presence of [a power plant] on the bay front,” Cox said.

McCann said alternative sites should first be considered. LS Power says the site is ideal because transmission lines and other infrastructure are already in place.

The councilman is also leading the city’s efforts to build a new football stadium for the San Diego Chargers. Several sites are in play, both inland and on the bay front, including the power plant site — if a new one isn’t built. Cox, who was elected after negotiations with the football team began, has so far been supportive of the talks.

The existing power plant, which opened in 1960, is located on the waterfront because it requires millions of gallons of seawater to cool its internal processes. Its replacement would not need seawater, which would be a boon for sea life that gets trapped and killed by water intake. Opponents say that affords the perfect opportunity to move the plant out of western Chula Vista.

But opponents were buoyed by Thursday’s meeting and SDG&E’s announcement. While addressing the joint meeting, Laura Hunter, director of the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition’s Clean Bay Campaign, called Avery her “new best friend.”

A second joint meeting on the plant’s future is planned but has not been scheduled. Chula Vista’s council is expected to form a subcommittee to further discuss the plant’s future, but no action was taken Thursday.

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