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Monday, March 12, 2007 | A proposal to build a power plant at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar is gathering momentum. But as soon as the Del Mar-based Enpex Corp.’s plan surfaced, it was quickly met with vocal opposition from neighbors.
The latest energy proposal highlights the broader challenge facing all of the region’s electricity projects. Each faces stiff, vocal resistance. Few want a power plant or transmission line built in their backyard or through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
In Chula Vista, the Environmental Health Coalition is rejecting a bay-front replacement for the aging South Bay Power Plant while at the same time opposing construction of the Sunrise Powerlink, a $1.4 billion, 120-mile transmission line proposed by San Diego Gas & Electric.
In Santee, Mayor Randy Voepel and the City Council have authorized spending $100,000 to fight the Enpex proposal. He said he is willing to spend $500,000 in city funds to litigate against it. And he promised to employ “Viet Cong tactics” to kill the deal.
Not every energy infrastructure proposal gathers such rabid opposition. A 510-megawatt project in largely industrial Otay Mesa hasn’t provoked a peep. The hard-fought, high-profile energy battles elsewhere illustrate the difficulties of completing an energy project that infringes on what’s most near and dear to energy users: their homes. But, with opponents failing to endorse another plan, experts say that something will likely need to be built to satisfy the region’s energy needs.
“The problem is that they keep proposing projects where they impact downwind communities,” said Laura Hunter, spokeswoman for the Environmental Health Coalition. “I think that you have to look at what’s being proposed and who’s impacted by that. … There are models of smaller plants that are going to impact less people. We have to move away from the gargantuan plant with a 5-mile downwind impact.”
The Enpex proposal would build a power plant on 60 acres at Miramar and was originally envisioned at 750 megawatts — enough to light 487,000 homes — with potential expansion to double that. It is the brainchild of Richard Hertzberg, the Del Mar businessman who runs Enpex, which currently has three employees. The company received permission to buy land from the U.S. Navy in exchange for building military housing.
The plan will need Navy approval, but it hinges on Enpex getting an agreement to sell its power to San Diego Gas & Electric, which released a request for new electricity Friday. The company said it wants 500 megawatts of base-load generation, which is the everyday electricity that powers homes year-round. SDG&E also wants 200 megawatts of peak-demand electricity, from power plants that could be flipped on at a moment’s notice to meet needs on hot days.
“All of the procurement does boil down to the SDG&E procurement process,” Hertzberg said. “You need a customer.”
SDG&E has publicly rejected proposals for base-load electricity from LS Power, the New Jersey-based company operating the South Bay Power Plant in Chula Vista, saying it didn’t need that type of power. That clouds the immediate prospects for Enpex, as SDG&E also said bidders must offer plans less expensive than buying a 480-megawatt Nevada base load power plant owned by a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, its parent company. An SDG&E news release Friday said buying the plant would save its customers $100 million compared to building a new plant.
The Enpex plan has met with swift objections from Santee city officials, who first learned of the project’s reemergence — SDG&E rejected an earlier plan in 2003 — from a local newspaper story. In a subsequent meeting, Hertzberg walked out after Voepel, the Santee mayor, admittedly provoked him. Voepel, who served two tours in Vietnam, said he is running his campaign against the plant “like a cold-blooded military operation.”
“Santee will oppose every move he makes. We will use Viet Cong tactics,” Voepel said. “We will fight a guerilla war that never ceases and never quits. This is a hill I will die on. … We are great Viet Cong fighters. And as a Vietnam veteran, I have great respect for the Viet Cong and how they operated.
“We will be Enpex’s worst nightmare.”
That cements the trifecta of power infrastructure opposition. The Sunrise Powerlink, South Bay Power Plant replacement project and now Enpex all have vocal opponents. And none of the opposition is endorsing another project instead.
If everyone gets their way, it could cause future problems, said Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at University of San Diego.
“Because if we say no Sunrise, no South Bay, no Enpex, the problem is that in this case SDG&E is between a rock and a hard place,” Anders said. “They’re damned if they do and they’re damned if they don’t. If they can’t build Sunrise and they can’t build power plants and the lights go out in 2012, people are going to say: ‘Why didn’t you build more power plants?’”
But those who are fighting the plants say the company is creating a crisis of fear, while ignoring more practical options such as energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy. SDG&E fell far short of its energy efficiency goals last year.
“It may be true once all practical opportunities for conservation, efficiency and renewables have been exhausted that we still need new, cleaner burning conventional power plants,” said David Hogan, conservation manager for the Center for Biological Diversity, a Sunrise Powerlink opponent. “And if that’s true, then Enpex may be one of several opportunities for that source.”
While San Diego may need more energy, the projects can be tough to sell because the region hasn’t yet tapped out those cleaner opportunities, said Irene Stillings, executive director of the nonprofit San Diego Regional Energy Office.
“I well understand that there’s going to be a base load of power demand that is going to necessitate some kind of central plant,” Stillings said. “But the utilities have more of a responsibility to find other alternatives. They could do a lot more than they do.”
As Santee stiffens its back, some question why and others are worrying about the broader impact it will have. Bill Powers, a local engineer who follows energy issues, said Santee’s objections are unusual for a city of its kind. Escondido, he noted, didn’t put up a fight against a recent plant built there, in part because the site had been proposed as a higher-impact rocky quarry. And power plants are often welcomed as economic boosts for cities, Powers said. But Fanita Ranch, a 1,300-home subdivision, is proposed adjacent to the Enpex site.
“If this development wasn’t on the horizon,” Powers said, “it’s hard for me to imagine why Santee would get that upset. That’s unusual.”
Mary Teresa Sessom, Lemon Grove’s mayor and chairwoman of the San Diego Association of Governments, said she worries about the example Santee will set by spending as much as $500,000 to fight the plant.
“If the rich communities are willing to pony up big bucks to fight power plants, the only place they can go are into the poorer communities,” Sessom said. “And then you have that whole environmental injustice starting again, with poor communities bearing the brunt of the infrastructure the richer communities won’t let in.”