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Power plant proposals for Southern California spark an energy debate

A new wave of natural gas power plants planned for Southern California has stoked a high-stakes debate about how best to keep the lights on throughout the region.

Green groups believe renewable energy has received short shrift by utilities proposing these facilities from Carlsbad to Oxnard. But operators of the state's electrical grid have warned that maintaining a stable power supply requires a delicate mix of energy sources — including fossil fuels.

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The biggest showdown of late centers on an envisioned gas-fired facility in seaside Carlsbad, which advocates of renewable energy are trying to block. If a state appellate court agrees to hear the case, the granting of judicial review could encourage similar challenges against at least four other projects in Southern California.

If the court denies the request for review, it would help cement the construction of fossil fuel power plants slated to operate for decades.

"They're selling a myth about what we must do to go green and clean that rewards the usual suspects with multibillion-dollar projects and a guaranteed profit," said Bill Powers, a mechanical engineer who serves on the board of Protect Our Communities, a nonprofit fighting a number of proposed gas-fired plants.

"The state's energy strategy is a rapid transition to clean energy … and that is completely doable with rooftop solar, with battery power, and it's completely doable in a cost-effective way without some gas-fired transition," said Powers, a former consultant for the energy industry.

Officials with San Diego Gas & Electric, which would buy power from the Carlsbad plant, disagreed that new natural gas projects should be eliminated. The utility said the fuel is a necessary complement to alternatives such as green power and battery storage — a strategy of diversification also pursued by the region's other large utilities.

"You can't really say that you need all of this and none of that," said Stephanie Donovan, senior communications manager for SDG&E. "We need wind and solar and storage, and the flexibility of the quick-start [gas-fired] power plant."

Energy standards in California call for 33% of the state's power to come from renewables by 2020 and 50% by 2030.

SDG&E has a portfolio that includes about 33% green power. Southern California Edison's level is roughly 24%.

"Right now we have a lot of renewable energy generation. We're going to continue to add to that," Donovan said. "One way to do that is to ensure that we have the flexible capacity that a plant like Carlsbad provides."

The latest round of proposed gas plants comes in the wake of the 2013 closing of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, as well as the phasing out of older power plants that use ocean water to cool internal systems.

The state's Public Utilities Commission has moved swiftly to bring new projects online to replace the lost electricity generation by San Onofre — a challenge ostensibly compounded by the massive methane leak at a natural gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon.

In the several years it took for the commission to approve the Carlsbad project, costs for solar power and battery storage plunged. The price decline has emboldened opponents of fossil fuels to push for new facilities that would use renewable energy.

Still, how aggressively to invest in such technologies remains a significant question for some advocates of renewables.

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The alternative energy industry is innovating at a phenomenal rate, said Rajit Gadh, founder and director of UCLA's Smart Grid Energy Research Center.

But he urged patience: "I would love to see higher and higher renewables, but I think we have to take the correct steps to get there. And as an engineer, I would like to make sure we do the data measurements and we do the right things so that utilities and everybody else are satisfied that this can be done."

These struggles are playing out in the Los Angeles basin, where three gas-fired plants are proposed for construction: the Huntington Beach Energy Project, the Alamitos Energy Center and the Stanton Energy Reliability Center.

Although environmental groups plan legal challenges against all three proposals, they're currently concentrating on the Carlsbad Energy Center. That coastal facility would replace the existing Encina Power Station, which is slated for retirement next year.

After the state utilities commission greenlighted the Carlsbad project, critics began seeking a reversal by the 1st District Court of Appeal. The court is expected to soon announce whether it will take up the case.

"The Carlsbad decision will be a harbinger for the other last-gasp gas plants," said Loretta Lynch, a former president of the utilities commission and now a private energy consultant.

"While those other cases are different procedurally [from the Carlsbad project], they all raise the question of why is the [commission] saddling Californians with unneeded fossil plants for 30 to 40 years at platinum prices," she said.

In Orange County, opponents of a 98-megawatt peaker plant in Stanton are watching the Carlsbad case closely. If built, the facility would operate under a 20-year deal between Southern California Edison and Wellhead Energy Systems.

The utilities commission has granted permission for the Stanton project to move forward, and it's considering a request from the Sierra Club for a rehearing. The environmental group asserts that investments in battery storage could replace the need for the gas-fired plant.

"The facts of the [Carlsbad] case are somewhat unique, but it will send a signal and it will get us to our goals much more quickly," said Matthew Vespa, an attorney for the Sierra Club who is contesting both projects.

Southern California Edison, which didn't respond to inquiries for this article, has contracts for more than 260 megawatts of energy storage, including a 100-megawatt project that would be the largest grid-connected battery system in the nation.

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This story originally ran on the San Diego Union Tribune's website on May 24.

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