State regulators approved a plan to replace a 1950s natural gas power plant in northern San Diego County with a new version, sparking complaints from environmentalists that renewable energy options were being overlooked.
The California Public Utilities Commission voted 4 to 1 on Thursday to allow San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to purchase power from the proposed Carlsbad Energy Center. Commissioner Catherine J.K. Sandoval cast the dissenting vote.
The plan, a pared-down version of SDG&E's original vision, calls for the utility to enter into a 500-megawatt power purchase agreement with the Carlsbad center. The facility will be built adjacent to the existing Encina plant, which is set to go offline in 2017 and then be torn down.
Commissioners said the center is necessary to plug the hole left by the Encina shutdown and the 2013 closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant near San Clemente. The coastal plant, which would be constructed by developer NRG Energy of New Jersey, would provide power to San Diego for 20 years starting in fall 2017.
But the plan, initially intended to allocate 600 megawatts for sale to SDG&E, has been fraught with controversy since the utility filed its application with the utilities commission last summer.
In March, a regulatory judge recommended that the PUC reject the plant.
Earlier this month, the five-member panel postponed a decision on the plan. Several commissioners said they wanted more time to hear about potential alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power.
Gov. Jerry Brown proposed at the beginning of the year that California derive half of its power from renewable sources by 2030.
In its decision, the PUC said it remains optimistic that SDG&E can meet and exceed its clean energy goals but noted that "we cannot base the future of safe and reliable electric service in Southern California on hope."
Critics were outspoken. Thursday's vote locks San Diego ratepayers into funding a project "drafted behind closed doors," according to a statement from Sierra Club senior attorney Matt Vespa.
"By allowing this gas plant to be built, we are stifling San Diego's clean energy potential, job growth and ambitious efforts to reduce pollution that exacerbates health issues and climate change," Vespa said.