With Nuclear Plant Shut Down, Utility Pushes for Unpopular Gas Plant

Keeping the lights on in San Diego | Photo: SP8254/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Though the general consensus seems to be that Southern California will get through the summer just fine without the permanently closed San Onofre nuclear power plant, officials at San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) are pushing to make up what they say may be a shortfall by allowing the construction of an unpopular gas-fired plant near the Mexican border.

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SDG&E, a division of Sempra Energy, has refiled a petition with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to open the 305-megawatt Pio Pico Energy Center near Otay Mesa, citing the risk of power shortfalls in the wake of the permanent shuttering of the San Onofre plant. The renewed application was filed last week, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

The CPUC denied an earlier bid to build the plant in March, saying that SDG&E's ratepayers didn't yet need the power the plant would generate. The March decision also quashed the proposed 100-megawatt Quail Brush power plant near Escondido.

Though that March decision came at a time when the handwriting was pretty much on the wall for San Onofre's closure, and it's hard to imagine that the CPUC didn't take the potential closure into account, SDG&E is taking the loss of its share of the nuclear plant as a reason to try over again with Pio Pico.

This despite the fact that Pio Pico might as well be spelled "Pio Peako": the project would be a peaking power plant, designed to ramp up quickly to meet heavy demand for power on hot summer afternoons. That's precisely the kind of power plant that's most easily replaced by solar, which is undergoing rapid growth in both San Diego County and its de-facto energy resource colony in the Imperial Valley.

Still, SDG&E president Michael Niggli says that the sun doesn't shine reliably enough in the desert and on the San Diego coast. "Renewables are great, but they're controlled by Mother Nature," Niggli told the Union-Tribune's Morgan Lee. "So you need these solid backups like the peakers."

When the CPUC gave Pio Pico the thumbs-down in March, it suggested the plant would cost ratepayers a billion dollars for power they didn't need -- at least not yet. That high cost got the Pio Pico plant to second place on a Sierra Club list of the state's top five most expensive, dirty, and unnecessary utility projects. (It shared the honor with the proposed Quail Brush plant.)

The Pio Pico plant is highly controversial, and its previous go-round was fraught with allegations of misconduct by CPUC officials, with CPUC president Michael Peevey accused of pulling strings to get a decision favorable to SDG&E. It will be interesting to see how this second round fares in the court of public opinion.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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