Wednesday, March 7, 2007 | Chula Vista’s City Council has taken a firm stand on the South Bay Power Plant’s future: The council wants it gone, and it doesn’t want any replacement plant built on the bay front.

They’ve outlined their dream. They haven’t outlined how to make it a reality.

Just because Chula Vista’s council wants to see the behemoth power plant torn down doesn’t guarantee that it will happen. The state requires the aging plant to operate to ensure local electricity reliability — to prevent the rolling blackouts that paralyzed the region during the energy crisis.

That leaves a major obstacle in the way. Unless new energy sources are tapped, the reliability label will be stuck on the existing plant, preventing its demolition. And no one agency is clearly responsible for leading the charge to find the other energy sources that would allow the South Bay Power Plant to be torn down.

So while the council members’ sentiment is clear, it’s unclear how they’ll accomplish their goal or who will take the lead. The answer could end up being a hodgepodge of agencies: the city of Chula Vista, San Diego Gas & Electric, the Unified Port of San Diego, state agencies and the power plant’s opponents.

Sound confusing? That’s because few involved know what their next step is.

“If we knew how [the reliability label] goes away we’d have done it by now,” Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox said. “We’re all a little perplexed.”

The Unified Port of San Diego owns the plant and the land on which it sits. It has been considering whether to allow LS Power, which leases and operates the plant, to build a replacement plant on the existing site. LS Power has argued that the smaller, more efficient replacement project would be the only certain way to get the old plant demolished. The land has been eyed for redevelopment and a possible Chargers stadium.

“The proactive course of action was to go with a South Bay replacement plant,” LS Power spokesman David Hicks said. “Ours was a real project. That’s what we were trying to say the whole time.”

But Chula Vista’s council has dismissed that option. The formal decision rests with the port, which is scheduled to vote Tuesday. Several of its commissioners have signaled that they’ll heed the council’s advice against the replacement project. If that happens, though, there is no clearly delineated next step.

“From an official standpoint, we have done all that we can do,” said Steve Castaneda, a Chula Vista councilman. “At this point, we have a decision to make as a City Council … to work with regulatory agencies and the port to find solutions to ensure that’s a reality.”

Opponents say rejecting the LS Power bay-front proposal is a necessary first step. Eliminating that bad alternative, said Laura Hunter, spokeswoman for the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition, will allow the city to begin considering better options that will lead to the current plant’s demolition.

Hunter is proposing the development of what she calls “a clean energy action plan,” which would outline alternatives. She said the city of Chula Vista could take the lead role in its drafting, with supporting roles from the port and other South Bay politicians.

“I don’t think anyone knows the full answer right now,” Hunter said. “But we need to get answers about what we need to do, so we can take the steps we need to.”

Cox and a Chula Vista staff member are scheduled to travel Wednesday to San Francisco to meet with the California Public Utilities Commission about the plant; a meeting with the California Independent System Operator, or CalISO, had to be scrapped because of a staffer’s illness.

CalISO decides what plants must run to meet reliability needs and is responsible for ensuring the state’s electricity supply always exceeds demand. One tool it has is the reliability label it has affixed to the existing South Bay Power Plant. Though the plant produces power less efficiently than newer plants, it must remain in place until other power sources are found.

Three things can produce those new power sources, CalISO spokesman Gregg Fishman said. New power plants can be built, new transmission lines constructed or energy demand reduced.

“We’re very cognizant of the impacts that especially these older power plants can have on the communities,” Fishman said. “It is our primary purpose, though, to make sure that people’s lights stay on.”

Fishman said SDG&E’s proposed Sunrise Powerlink, a 120-mile, $1.4 billion transmission line, would provide enough electricity to remove the reliability label on the South Bay plant.

The power line would be built through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and is being fought by environmentalists, ratepayer advocates and neighbors.

“There is some opposition to that power line,” Fishman acknowledged. “It’s not just going to show up tomorrow.”

An SDG&E official has said the South Bay Power Plant and its replacement are not needed, even if the Sunrise Powerlink isn’t built.

But Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a ratepayer advocate, said that claim has not been backed up.

“They won’t say the alternative, because anything like that could be used in the Sunrise case,” he said. “They’ll need a power plant if Sunrise doesn’t get built.”

SDG&E has played a pivotal role in helping to swing policy action against the South Bay Power Plant, particularly the LS Power replacement plant proposed on the bay front. Jim Avery, an SDG&E senior vice president, told Chula Vista and port officials in January that his company did not intend to purchase power from the proposed plant.

The company, however, is legally required to consider all bids when it requests proposals for new power sources.

Since that pronouncement, Avery has had a diminished role on the South Bay proposal. He is no longer leading discussions with LS Power, SDG&E spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan said. LS Power asked to speak specifically with the company’s chief executive and chief operating officers, Donovan said.

Michael Niggli, SDG&E’s chief operating officer, is taking the lead, Donovan said. She would not say if Avery was disciplined for speaking too strongly about the company’s position.

“Jim Avery is continuing to be a part of the discussions about the reliability needs of our customers,” Donovan said. “He is definitely a part of the whole discussion. … I can’t speak for Jim or what Jim said. I can tell you what our position is: when we put out a request for offers, we will welcome a bid from LS Power and other local generators.”

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