Lori Ziebart - project manager for the Quail Bush Generation Project for Cogentrix Energy.
San Diego City Councilmember Marti Emerald
Katie Orr, KPBS Metro Reporter
Chris Davis, California Energy Commission
Related Story: SD Planning Commission Denies Rezoning, But It's Not Over For Quail Brush Power Plant
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. S Thursday, July 19th. Our top story on Midday Edition, the City of San Diego planning commission voted down a plan to build a new power plant near mission trails park. The proposed quail brush generation plant sparked fierce local opposition in Santee. But now that the planning commission has voted down the plant, the issue has been resolved, right? Well, not exactly. On the line is Laurie Ziebart, project manager for the company that wants to build the plant. Welcome to the show.
ZIEBART: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: What's your reaction to the no-vote?
ZIEBART: Well, first I think I need to clarify they did not vote on the project. They voted on denying initiation of the community plan amendment, and initiation -- if they had voted for initiation, we would have been able to submit an application so the city could review our project. So they voted not to let us submit our application, and of course we are very disappointed in that. And we submitted supplemental information because the planning commissioners had questions. However, they were not included in the record. So we are disappointed that they were not able to have the benefit of the supplemental information that we provided before they made their decision.
CAVANAUGH: Remind us about the basics of the plant.
ZIEBART: It's a 100 megawatt natural gas plant with a long-term contract with SDG&E. It is north of 52 near the sycamore landfill.
CAVANAUGH: And you refer to a peeker plant. That means that you plan, if this were to be built, not to run it continuously.
ZIEBART: That. We're contracted for about 1,300 hours a year.
CAVANAUGH: And it's planned as sort of a backup to fill out the grid needs of San Diego?
ZIEBART: Yes, that's correct. It's meeting peak demand, it his quick-start capabilities, it's efficient and low water usage, and it's attractive to SDG&E because it can be dialed up or down very quickly in small increments to insure grid stability and that the lights stay on.
CAVANAUGH: What are you going to do now?
ZIEBART: We plan to appeal to City Council.
CAVANAUGH: And are you still planning construction to begin in January?
ZIEBART: We are moving forward with the process. The CEC will need to move forward with its process, and we will not be able to begin construction until the permits are granted.
CAVANAUGH: That's the California energy commission. Thank you for joining us today.
ZIEBART: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: My guest, San Diego City Council Marti Emerald. Hi.
CAVANAUGH: And Katie Orr is KPBS metro reporter.
ORR: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Let me start with you. What happened at today's meeting?
ORR: Well, just like Laurie had said, the city planning commission voted to not go ahead with the initiation process, which really would have started a process looking at whether or not the zoning in that area could have been changed. Now it's open space, and this would have changed it to a high industrial use. So that was the first step in the process. They voted not to even begin that process. At the meeting, some of them did say what is even the point of this? The California energy commission they feel has the ultimate authority over this, despite what we do locally. So they thought -- it seemed like some of them were questioning whether or not they should even be talking about it. Because they voted to not go forward with this process, it can be appealed to the City Council.
CAVANAUGH: I want to take us back a couple months. There was robust public comment before the commission, much of it opposed to this plant. Where is the opposition coming from?
ORR: Well, it's mostly people who live in Santee. The plant is technically in the City of San Diego, but it's right on the border, near a park, mission trails park, so a lot of people who use that park objected to it as well. It's near a school. It's near communities and neighborhoods. So people there who were concerned about potential noise, potential pollution from the plant, also just the fact that it might not be very pretty to look at, they didn't want that in their community. A lot of people like we heard from Laurie, it's hard to save these power plants, because these people don't want to live right next to one.
CAVANAUGH: Marti, the site of this proposed plant is in your current district.
EMERALD: I've tried to remain neutral. I have concerns about potential environmental impact, concerns about the impacts on the quality of life in the neighborhoods in the area. I've asked for continuances before the planning commission because I wanted to make sure that every community that would have an interest has an opportunity to hear about the proposal and weigh in. And so far it looks to me as though the process is working. The applicant, cogen tricks, has said they will appeal the planning commission's decision, that will most likely come after labor day because August is a recess period for the council. They do have the next ten days to file an appeal. And I look forward to hearing what they have to say at City Council and hearing from the public there. This is an important issue. We had another power plant application at the west end might have district. And I think the public spoke effectively, and that developer has decided to pack it in and if back to Canada and reassess the situation later on.
CAVANAUGH: And so as far as you see this, is this just part of this practices then? The no-vote by the planning commission doesn't hold much weight?
EMERALD: Absolutely, it does hold weight. And what the commissioners said today is they could not make three very crucial findings to change the zoning out there. And one is that the amendment would be consistent with the goals and policies of the general plan and the Navaho community plan. And the Navaho area is in my district. They could not make that finding. Also that there would be increased public benefit to the community. Could not make that finding. And there appears to be an increase in density and intensity in the area and services to provide. They could not make that finding. That's very, very important. And when the City Council hears the appeal from Cogentrix, they'll have to make a case on these findings and others. And I've got to be very careful here. I've been -- I've met with all sides. But when the appeal comes forward and we anticipated there might be an appeal depending upon how the planning commission voted, but this is a quasi judicial hearing that we will be conducting. And if I go out there and give opinions and so forth, I would have to recuse myself from a vote. And I think the communities recognize that I have been listening, that this council is watching this process. And so we take very seriously the planning commission's actions, and we will take very seriously the appeal hearing that we will have before us probably in September.
EMERALD: This is a very important issue, really important for the public to be educated about it and have the opportunity to weigh in. And so far I see that process working.
CAVANAUGH: And I apologize for misstating your position on the plan. You are remaining neutral, you're not in opposition to it as this moves on to the San Diego City Council.
EMERALD: And I'm not going to express an opinion until all of the evidence is in.
EMERALD: And I'm going to respect this process, and the quasi judicial nature of the hearing that we have coming up.
CAVANAUGH: Let me go to you, Katie. How is this different from the one recently proposed in university city?
ORR: The main difference is the size. The quail brush would be about 100 megawatts. The one for university city was 800 megawatts. It was also the land that it was on. It was going to be located on what's called pueblo lands, and anything that is built on there and will be on there, I believe if it's longer than a 15-year lease, you have to have public approval.
EMERALD: That's right. A vote.
ORR: Right. So that was the big sticking point there. They didn't know if they would be able to get that approval. What is interesting is even though that was sort of in the planning stages, just the community, just like we're seeing with the quail brush one just rallies up and says we do not want this here. And so it does put public officials maybe in a tricky spot. Down the line, depending on what happens at San Onofre, we might need that power. But how do you support putting a plant in your district when you know the people there absolutely do not want it?
CAVANAUGH: I want to go to Chris Davis from the California energy commission. He's on the line. Welcome to the show.
DAVIS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: What if the California energy commission thinks this is a good idea?
DAVIS: If the committee finds this project is in the public interest.
CAVANAUGH: How would you go about making that determination?
DAVIS: Well, are first of all, our staff will continue working with the city through this appeal process. We've been supplying information on our process. And we'll follow that, we'll contribute as necessary and see what happens there. If the project -- in order for us to approve it, it needs to comply with all law, ordinances, regulations and standards, and if it does not, the two committees overseeing this process will need to make a final recommendation to the commission for a full decision.
CAVANAUGH: And how far are you along on any environmental impact studies or gathering any data?
DAVIS: We're pretty close to the beginning. We're waiting for the applicant to submit a supplement and make some changes to the project. And we're still in the discovery phase. We have stats in 20 different technical areas, air quality, water quality, etc, who are collecting information. When we get the revised application, they'll look at the new aspects of it, there will also be a workshop in the community. I think it's -- we were looking at a location in Santee, for instance, and invite the public to discuss it and have staff down there discuss the issues with the power plant applicant.
CAVANAUGH: There is a feeling among some people that I've spoken with that these are just formalities, that a power plant is going to be ultimately located at this site. How much weight does public input have in the way the California energy commission makes its decisions?
DAVIS: It does carry a lot of weight. The commissioners have been down there, are and they've heard it. We certainly consider aspects of the environmental review that are brought up by the public, try to answer any concerns in our preliminary staff assessment, which is again still several months away, and the final staff assessment. So the public plays an important role in the process, and we do listen. The environmental analysis and impacts that the project would have on the local community are the things that we focus on and that try to make sure that it complies with all local ordinances and any environmental impacts are mitigated.
CAVANAUGH: And just back to you briefly if I could, I want to follow up on that point, Katie. You were saying having this peaker power plant in San Diego, a case might be made that this is an important thing to have considering the troubles up at San Onofre and other demands on our grid.
ORR: Yeah, I think so. I believe there's an Encino power plant coming offline. San Onofre has been having its troubles. So in the future, we might need these kinds of plant, and some of the proponents say they're actually more environmentally friendly because the one in university city for example would take advantage of the reclaimed water, and they could use that water -- there are plants that take it from the ocean and cycle it back out, and that could hurt the sea life. So there are tradeoffs with any plant that you have. But the people who are developing these will tell you these are cleaner, newer, they use the modern technology. So we have to have some kind of power going forward. At some point, you're going to have to make a compromise.
CAVANAUGH: Marti, is the next move up to Cogentrix?
EMERALD: Yeah, they've got ten days to file an appeal, and that would come to the city, and we would have another hearing open to the public. And I think that the California energy commission has to establish a need for this extra generation. But we can't forget history. In the year 2001, we had brownouts. We had the threat of blackouts in the entire State of California. This was during that brief time of deregulation when our energy costs went through the ceiling. So we have to -- at the time, the governor and the state legislator were out there saying we need peaker plants. But we need peaker plants that are going to be friendlier to the environment that past energy generation has been.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you all.
ORR: Thank you.
EMERALD: Thank you.