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CPUC approves agreement for Pio Pico Energy Center

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The California Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved San Diego Gas & Electric's power-purchase tolling agreement with the proposed Pio Pico Energy Center.

Coming less than a year after the commission denied an earlier version of SDG&E's power-purchase application for the planned 305-megawatt natural gas-fired "peaker" plant, the decision paves the way for Apex Energy Group to have the plant built south of the Olympic Training Center, adjacent to the Otay Mesa Energy Center.

Groups opposed to the construction have said the plant would head the region in the wrong direction by relying on fossil fuels rather than renewable energy and efficiency.

As a "peaker" power plant, the facility would run only at times of great need, such as exceptionally hot days, and left idle when demands for energy are more typical. The California Independent Systems Operator would determine when it's needed.

A few opponents of the plant — from San Diego and elsewhere in the state — spoke before the vote. Some were Chula Vista-area residents, who spoke of health concerns and a fear that the plant would worsen asthma problems.

A representative from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce read a statement from President and CEO Jerry Sanders, in favor of the application, noting the power source would give the region's businesses stability.

While the commissioners said they favor renewable energy when it makes sense, they also reminded opponents that the plant would not emit greenhouse gases or particulates most of the time because of its “peaker” status. Commissioner Mike Florio said he hopes to someday approve nothing but renewable energy projects.

"The problem is, we're not there yet," he said.

The Environmental Health Coalition released a statement criticizing the decision.

“Better options exist, but the Commission is choosing, once again, to dump a polluting power plant in a low-income community of color that already shoulders a huge burden of pollution from various sources,” said Kayla Race, policy advocate with Environmental Health Coalition.

“Solar rooftop panels could provide a clean energy solution for everyone, but clearly SDG&E is not interested in updating its archaic business models or protecting customers; otherwise, Pio Pico would not even be on the table.”

Commissioner Catherine J.K. Sandoval explained her vote in favor of the plant, saying that something has to be able to provide standby energy during peak times in the San Diego region. She mentioned that energy demand in the region peaks around 7 p.m. and explained how existing renewable energy strategies don't give stability after sunset. Wind energy wouldn't help much then, either, she said.

"It's too early [in the night] for wind," she said.

Sandoval also posed a challenge to opponents of the plant, saying that how often the plant runs will depend on them. If they employ energy efficiency as much as possible, they could keep the plant idle to a proportional degree, she said.

Commissioner Carla J. Peterman, the newcomer to the board, said that this proposal had concerned her since her arrival about a year ago, describing herself as committed to a more clean-energy future.

"But I'm also a realist," Peterman said, adding that there was no way for renewable energy to realistically replace all of the energy production lost to the decommissioning of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Until better technologies are developed that could make renewable energy efficient when its sources are not producing, some form of fossil fuels will have to be used, she said.

Peterman added that Pio Pico will be cleaner than the "once-through cooling options that would need to stick around if we did not build a plant here."

When a CPUC administrative law judge's proposed decision in early January recommended the Commission approve the SDG&E application, Mike King, principal of Apex Energy Group, said he'd like to start building the plant by April and have it completed after 18 months.

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