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Wednesday, March 28, 2007 | As the Chula Vista City Council considers the South Bay Power Plant’s future, three very different scenarios to replace the behemoth plant’s electricity have emerged.

San Diego Gas & Electric says the bay-front plant — required to stay open until replacement electricity comes online — could be torn down if two things are built: A power plant in Otay Mesa and the controversial Sunrise Powerlink, a $1.4 billion power line connecting San Diego with Imperial County. If the Powerlink isn’t built, smaller plants to meet peak demand could be instead built, the company says.

Power Struggle

  • The Issue: The Chula Vista City Council and port commissioners have agreed they want the South Bay Power Plant torn down. But they haven’t determined how they’ll get the state to remove the reliability label that keeps the plant open.
  • What It Means: Differing views about how much new power is needed to replace South Bay have emerged. A scenario offered by San Diego Gas & Electric is the most probable, observers say. It relies on a new power plant planned in Otay Mesa as well as either the Sunrise Powerlink or several smaller power plants that would meet peak electricity demand.
  • The Bigger Picture: If the South Bay Power Plant is to be demolished to free up Chula Vista’s bay front for redevelopment, new power sources must be found first.

Energy industry observers say that is the most likely way to replace the South Bay plant. Demolishing the plant would rid Chula Vista of a major pollution source and open up a vast swath of real estate for redevelopment, including a potential Chargers stadium. But other options are being considered.

Chula Vista City Councilman Steve Castaneda has his own idea, which has come after meeting with the California Independent System Operator, the state agency responsible for maintaining statewide electricity reliability. Castaneda says Cal ISO agrees that the Otay Mesa plant and Powerlink would need to be built. Here’s where this idea differs: Castaneda says another new power plant would also be needed. The plant would be built somewhere in Chula Vista by LS Power, the New Jersey company that operates the existing plant.

The Environmental Health Coalition, the plant’s leading opponent, offers a third view. The advocacy group says the county’s renewable energy options should be tapped, using solar power to replace the fossil fuel-fired plant.

Chula Vista’s council and the Unified Port of San Diego’s commissioners have both panned LS Power’s plans to build a replacement plan on the city’s bay front. Two weeks have passed since the port commissioners have rejected the plant, and the next steps for getting the old plant torn down still remain uncertain. But the clock is ticking. Chula Vista officials say they want the plant demolished by 2010.

“It’s a long issue,” Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox said. “It’s going to take us some time.”

Though the Chula Vista council and Unified Port of San Diego both want the plant to be demolished, their formal actions do not guarantee it will happen. Cal ISO requires the aging plant to operate to ensure local reliability — to prevent the rolling blackouts that paralyzed the region during the energy crisis.

Until new energy sources are tapped, that state-designated reliability label will be stuck on the existing plant, preventing its demolition.

Some say that what’s needed is a formal group charged with developing a consensus plan — a South Bay energy blueprint — that will elucidate the exact steps required to tear down the plant.

“We have to get a working group together,” said Laura Hunter, the Environmental Health Coalition’s spokeswoman. “I would caution us to take any of the agencies’ word as gospel at this point. They all have their lens that they see the world through.”

Once such a blueprint is agreed on, Cal ISO would evaluate the plan and determine whether it’s sufficient, said Gregg Fishman, a Cal ISO spokesman.

“The answers really have to come from the community,” Fishman said. “We’ll guide them. But it has to come from the local area.”

The power plant demolition’s path looks so uncertain because of the complexity of the state-mandated reliability label. A power plant built at one end of the county doesn’t guarantee that reliability will improve at another end, because of the way electricity is conveyed through transmission lines, Fishman said. And many of the proposals aired Monday are predicated on assumptions of what power infrastructure projects will be approved and how demand will grow.

But Michael Shames, executive director of the San Diego-based Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a ratepayer advocate, said demolishing the South Bay plant won’t be difficult, pointing to SDG&E’s projection as the most realistic. Shames said a large new power plant would not have to be built in Chula Vista as Castaneda says.

“There are a number of scenarios by which South Bay can be closed by 2009 — without causing blackouts,” Shames said. “The challenge will be finding one that makes sense economically.”

The key to shuttering South Bay is the opening of the 510-megawatt Otay Mesa power plant, Shames said. It would generate nearly enough power to remove the reliability label affixed to the Chula Vista plant. SDG&E says either the Powerlink or 300 megawatts from smaller power plants would bridge the remaining gap.

Hunter, the Environmental Health Coalition spokeswoman, said she is encouraged that the Otay Mesa project — which still needs financing but is otherwise cleared for construction — can play an important role in tearing down the South Bay plant.

“That could have a very significant impact on the size of our problem,” she said.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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