Wednesday, March 4, 2009 | Two years ago, the Chula Vista City Council took what seemed like a bold step. The council members rejected plans to build a new power plant on the city’s bay front and called for the existing South Bay Power Plant to be decommissioned and torn down.

The audience at City Hall applauded its leaders. Their vote ended a long push to build a smaller, more efficient power plant on the bay front. But the council’s promise was also significant. They painted a picture of a bay front without a hulking, 50-year-old power plant sitting on it. And they agreed on a deadline for it all to happen: January 2010.

Mayor Cheryl Cox said the “big, ugly plant” needed to be removed. “Our bay front is no place for a power plant,” she said. Councilman John McCann called for developing a plan to remove the state reliability label that requires the plant to stay open. Councilman Steve Castaneda said he was committed to “rolling up his sleeves” to make sure the plant was decommissioned and demolished.

That deadline will come and go in ten months, and the South Bay Power Plant will still be standing. The plant still operates, and no one can definitively say when it will be gone.

Today, policymakers at the city of Chula Vista and the Unified Port of San Diego still want the power plant to be torn down. Doing so would free up valuable bay-front land and potentially create a site for a new Chargers stadium, parkland or other redevelopment.

But the targeted timeframe now varies depending on whom you ask. Castaneda now says he wants the plant torn down before he’s termed out of office in 2012. Environmental activists don’t have a timeframe. The port points to 2011 or 2012.

The plant stays open because it’s required to. The California Independent System Operator, which is responsible for maintaining the state electricity grid, requires the aging plant to operate to ensure local reliability — to prevent the rolling blackouts that paralyzed the region during the energy crisis.

Chula Vista and port officials knew that when they called for the plant to be torn down. They said they would work with the plant’s owner to find a new site for a power plant within city limits. That would allow the cash-strapped city to retain the estimated $3 million in revenue it earns annually from the plant’s operation. Two years later, that effort has not produced a site or a proposal. Nor has any specific plan been created that spells out how much electricity is needed to supplant the South Bay facility.

Castaneda is blunt about the progress — or lack of — that he’s seen on the power plant. “Talking is not doing,” he said. “We need to get into the doing side.”

In a January 2008 letter to Mayor Cox, Cal ISO officials said the facility wouldn’t be needed once a new power plant opened in Otay Mesa. And it said one of two other options would also be needed: Either San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposed Sunrise Powerlink or two smaller power plants that meet peak, summer-day demand.

The Otay Mesa power plant is scheduled to come online in the fall, though it produces less energy than the South Bay facility. Cal ISO says that means more energy will be needed to supplant South Bay. State regulators have approved the Sunrise Powerlink, a high voltage line connecting San Diego and Imperial County. But it faces legal challenges and will not be built until at least 2012.

Cox points to those developments as good news for the power plant’s demolition prospects. She questions whether the Otay Mesa plant’s operation will allow part of the South Bay plant to be dismantled. But two years later, the city doesn’t know the answer to that.

Chula Vista is limited in what it can do, even though the plant sits inside city limits. The city doesn’t have regulatory authority over the plant or the land on which it sits. The port owns the plant and the 160 acres on which it sits. It leases the plant to Dynegy, a Houston-based power producer. The lease continues until the reliability label is removed on the plant.

Steve Cushman, a port commissioner, said the Sunrise Powerlink’s regulatory approval — and eventually construction — will help guarantee the plant gets torn down. “Providing that is sustained (in court), we can get it down and move on,” he said.

But attention is increasingly focusing on the wiggle room in Cal ISO’s letter, which didn’t include any specific totals for megawatts of new electricity needed. The letter leaves Cal ISO room to require Sunrise, the new Otay Mesa power plant and two smaller power plants of unspecified size. “[A]t least two out of three of these major modifications must occur before” the reliability label can be removed from South Bay, the letter says.

Since the letter arrived, officials have pointed to it as a solid agreement. But Castaneda now questions whether it is a formal commitment. He and a growing number of South Bay officials, led by U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, are planning to push Cal ISO for specific targets. They want a checklist of goals that need to be achieved in order for the plant to be deemed unnecessary for regional energy needs.

“I think it’s something they loosely put out there as a guideline,” Castaneda said of the 2008 letter. “Until I see that with someone’s signature and maybe some legislation to back that up, then I’ll be satisfied.”

Gregg Fishman, a Cal ISO spokesman, said the letter constitutes a firm commitment to removing the reliability requirement once the Otay Mesa plant and Sunrise Powerlink are operational. But he cautioned that “conditions can change. Given the static state of what we know now, this is our commitment.” Fishman said the agency was willing to discussing the issue with South Bay officials.

Nicole Capretz, the sustainable energy campaign director at the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition, a leading plant opponent, said Cal ISO’s commitment needs to be shored up by Filner and others.

“There are constantly questions about what it’ll take to remove the South Bay Power Plant,” Capretz said. “They’re kind of amorphous in their response. This is an effort to get clarity.”

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