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Appeals court agrees to review PUC approval of Carlsbad power plant

A state appeals court has agreed to review a controversial California Public Utilities Commission decision to greenlight a proposed $2.2-billion power plant in Carlsbad.

Opponents of the natural gas-fired Carlsbad Energy Center celebrated the news, hoping that it would boost the chances of stopping the plant from getting built.

"It's the wrong technology in the wrong place at the wrong time," said April Rose Sommer, executive director at Protect Our Communities Foundation, or POC, one of a number of environmental activists opposed to the construction of the project.

The 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco late Wednesday afternoon agreed to a petition filed by POC and the Center for Biological Diversity to take a closer look at a 4-1 vote by the PUC in May 2015 that granted approval of a contract for the Carlsbad Energy Center.

The PUC vote raised objections from opponents of the power plant that the vote was held without a public bidding process and after an aide for PUC President Michael Picker met privately with the developer of the project about downsizing an earlier plan that had been rejected.

The Carlsbad Energy Center would replace the aging Encina Power Station and sell power to San Diego Gas & Electric.

NRG Energy, which would build the proposed plant, said it is confident the decision to award the contract will be upheld. 

"The unfortunate thing is any further delay in the construction of the Carlsbad Energy Center, which is a clean-burning natural gas facility, continues to delay the retirement of the region's last costly, inefficient and high-emissions power plant [Encina]," said Stephanie Donovan. SDG&E's senior communications manager.

When asked for reaction from the commission and Picker, PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said in an email, “The court has decided to review our Carlsbad decision, and has not reached any substantive decision.” 

The 62-year-old Encina Power Station is being forced into retirement in large part due to its cooling systems that suck in seawater, a process called "once-through cooling" that regulators have come to oppose in recent years because it harms marine life.

Supporters say the Carlsbad plant would provide the area with quick-starting power to help back up renewable sources in order for California to meet its target of 33% of clean-energy generation by 2020 and 50% by 2030.

Opponents say it will harm the environment along the coastline and that the growth in renewable energy makes the plant unnecessary.

"The numbers show we do not need this additional generation," Sommer said. 

Donovan described the Carlsbad Energy Center as "the new workhorse" for the region.

"The reality is we can't just go forward with all-renewables and only renewables," Donovan said. "This plant is still needed because it is actually not in competition with renewables or any other resource. We really need a balanced mix of all of the above."

The appeals court decision does not block the potential construction of the Carlsbad Energy Center. Rather, it means a panel of judges will review the approval of the contract passed by the CPUC.

Nonetheless, the decision to accept the review caught some by surprise because courts typically show deference to decisions made by state agencies.

Last week the 2nd District denied review of a similar case against the PUC for approving contracts for three new power plants in the Los Angeles area.

Nikolewski writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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