By Nadin Abbott
September 24, 2012 (San Diego)--The mood was tense as people from multiple walks of life and political views filed into San Diego City Chambers. Among them was Republican Santee Councilman Jack Dale and Democrat David Secor, candidate for U.S. Congress for the 50th district. Both Dale and Secor came to oppose the Quail Brush gas-fired power plant.
So did Massada Disenhouse, activist for the Sierra Club and Martha Sullivan, a former California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) employee, and many others.
There were supporters of the plant as well, including Gary Salas, a member of the electrical trades. Also supporting the project was John Gibson, of Hamman Construction in El Cajon.
This planned peaked plant attracted people from multiple areas of the county, not just San Diego proper.
Before the meeting, ECM spoke with Lori Ziebart of Cogentrix, the project applicant. She said she was "hopeful City Council will initiate the plan." This way the city would be "able to review the project."
Cogentrix has claimed that the Quail Brush gas power plant is needed for “when the wind doesn’t blow”, a reference to wind energy projects slated to come online in our region. Cogentrix, formerly owned by Goldman Sachs, was recently acquired by the Carlylse Group. Carlysle is also the founder of Pattern Energy, the wind developer currently building the Ocotillo Express wind project slated to provide power for SDG&E through Sunrise Powerlink.
I was also able to talk with Martha Sullivan, (who later testified before Council). Sullivan used to work for the CPUC and managed many Environmental Impact Statements for several years. She has first hand knowledge of the process.
“In this case I am here to urge San Diego City Council to uphold the planning commission denial of this amendment to the General Plan. We do not need another power plant. What we need is more rooftop solar,” she said. Sullivan added that the city approved the PACE program last week, and that was a good move.
Masada Disenhouse told me that she was “concerned about climate change both in the County and the world. It is important to transition from fossil to renewable energies.”
ECM asked Disenhouse about windmills in the back country, such as the Ocotillo Express Wind Project and their effects on the environment. Disenhouse told me that “I realize that there are concerns. Every form of energy has pros and cons and they have to be evaluated.”
Disenhouse added that “We are talking about rooftop solar. San Diego has a potential for seven thousand Megawatts, which is more energy than the county needs. We need to maximize solar.”
Once the hearing started, Ziebart was the first to testify. She started by acknowledging that there is quite a bit of opposition to the project, and pointed to the packed room behind her. She then added that she was asking Council “to initiate the processes to change the Elliot Community Plan.”
This would be a 100 megawatt peaker plant that she said incorporates latest technology, both in its engines and the emissions systems that will go into the design.
Ziebart also said that the land where the plant would be placed is classified as open space and it is privately owned. She added that this request would start the process to change the land use from open space to industrial. She stated that there were already some industrial use of areas around it, such as the Sycamore land fill. To the east there are residences, however, as well as Tierra Santa and Mission Trails Regional Park.
Ziebart said that the project already meets the criteria to revise the Elliot Plan; these include benefitting the city, and a change in population density. She also said that the plant would only operate for 3800 hours, that is 48% of the year. It would bring stability to the grid, which now will increasingly depend on renewables, such as wind and solar.
Ziebart added that this plant would help replace older plants, and that it would serve the region during peak use times. She also claimed that there would be no impact to any species that are in the park, and have been in the region, for thousands of years.
Finally she touched on the economic benefits, there are 150 construction jobs on the line, as well as 11 permanent jobs projected. They have also signed a Project Labor Agreement, which will continue well after the construction of the project is over. Moreover there would be an economic benefit to the city in tax revenues, she said.
Ziebart also reminded Council that San Onofre is off line, and nobody knows when it will come back on line, if it will. We were lucky that this year San Diego Gas and Electric has been able to access two older plants in Huntington Beach, but next year they might not be available. “Demand for power is increasing every day,” and these new Peaker plants are needed to ensure a stable electrical grid for consumers, Ziebart maintained.
Gary Salas of the Electrical Workers, as well as Sean Carbin of the San Diego Taxpayer Association and Jason Anderson of Clean Tech San Diego supported the project. Carbin added that “as businesses try to grow, how ridiculous would it be to have brown outs again.”
Then it was the opposition’s turn. The long parade of speakers started with Councilman Dale. Dale told Council that “It is next to housing and it is where people are living.”
Dale admitted “power is a huge thing.” But, he added, “people will tell you it’s not in the right place for Santee, or San Diego County.”
David Secor, running for Duncan Hunter’s seat in the 50th District, also spoke to the Council. He told Councilmembers that he came here to represent the wishes “of the people of Santee,” and others in the District he hopes to represent. He has faulted Hunter for not taking a stand on the controversial power plant. Secor, who supports rooftop solar as an alternative, told Council, “It is not about electricity, but about corporate power. The sole concern is money. Money is never sufficient reason to go forward.”
The California Energy Commission has the power to overrule the City Council, if it chooses, though it has only rarely exercised that right.
Jay Powell of the Sierra Club told the Council, “It is in the wrong place.” It is also a “20th century fossil fuel plant that it is not needed.”
Jim Peugh of the San Diego Audubon Society challenged the claim by Ziebart that sensitive species would not be affected. He mentioned that this plant would destroy more of our grassland habitat. It would also increase the fire risk and bring more invasive species. Among the species at risk would be the San Diego Barrel Cactus, the Heart Leaved pitcher sage, the Quino Chekerspot Butterfly, and the Hermes Copper Butterfly.
This long session went for about four hours. The main thrust of the testimony was how this plant did not match with the terrain, or the Plan, or open space use. People from many walks of life presented information ranging from medical effects due to increased particulates, all the way to how this would affect their enjoyment of the park.
So finally we came to the end of this marathon session and the vote. Council Member Lorie Zapf started the process. “We heard a lot,” she said. “This is really a difficult issue.”
The crowd screamed “No!”
Zapf continued, “We need plants to meet needs at peak times. The Sunrise Powerlink came on line when San Onofre went off line…I don’t take lightly the need for reliable affordable energy,” But she concluded, “As much as I support peaker plants, I don’t believe this location should be approved. I deny the request to change the Elliot Plan.”
The crowd broke into applause.
She added, that this would also “save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in certain legal fees.” She reminded the people that the CPUC had the final decision though.
Councilmember Marty Emerald seconded, and added that it is actually a simple issue. “It is not in the right spot.” She also added that the landfill will be converted to open space. Moreover, this is not for public necessity or convenience. “In good conscience and [as a good] citizen I cannot vote for it.” The crowd again broke into applause.
Carl DeMaio joined the rest of the Councilmembers. He added that we needed to “encourage balance and it has to be sustainable, and we must do our best to preserve open space.” He added, “By any standard it is simply not an ideal site.”
He told the applicant to reconsider and go back to the drawing board.
Councilmember Kevin Faulconer was a man of few words. He simply said, “I strongly oppose this proposal.”
Sherri Lightner asked Stephen Adams, Counsel for the CPUC whether the project had to meet local, state and federal standards. And whether City Council was considered a governing agency?
Adams said that indeed Council was, and that CPUC would consult with relevant agencies.
Then Lightner said that it would have been nice to stop the process right at the beginning, and asked Zapf if she would agree to amend her motion to urge the applicant to withdraw the application?
After some questions with Mary Nuesca, Chief Deputy Counsel for the City, there was an agreement that legally they could do this. Lightner then asked the applicant to withdraw her application.
To this Ziebart said “No, we will not withdraw the application.”
With this they moved to the vote. San Diego City Council, unanimously, voted to reject the Quail Brush Project.
After the session was over Ziebart said that the process already started with the California Energy Commission would continue, regardless of the decision from the City Council.
Jay Powell of the Sierra Club and Run with the Sun spoke to ECM afterwards.
“This unanimous vote sends the strongest message possible to Sacramento and the California Energy Commission.”
He added that it is critical that citizens follow up. He felt that Councilmember Lightner asked the right question: “How do we prevent this type of application from coming up again?” He also said that Solar needs to be recognized by the CPUC.
Powell concluded that the CEC has already denied two similar applications from other companies, among them one in Chula Vista, and that they need to do it again. “The process in San Diego worked well, this time.”
The Sierra Club San Diego Chapter’s Run with the Sun campaign notes that by 2020 local rooftop and parking lot solar will generate ten times as much clean power for the San Diego area as today, elevating our regional total from 140 MW to more than 1,000 MW. Regarding economic development, the California Air Resources Board estimates that about 150 permanent jobs are created for each 100 MW of added local solar. The Quail Brush power plant would provide 11 permanent jobs.
If the CEC can make a finding of public need and convenience and verify that there are no viable energy alternatives, they have the authority to override the City Council’s decision and the City’s General Plan. However, their approval would not be the final word on whether or not we see the power plant built. SDG&E needs approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to enter into power purchase agreements for Quail Brush and the proposed Pio Pico power plant in Otay Mesa.
The CPUC will determine if SDG&E is complying with the state’s energy loading order, which is a mandate governing electricity procurement. Energy efficiency and rooftop solar are at the top of the order. The CPUC is expected to make a decision by the end of the year.