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Long-Awaited Vote On Carlsbad Energy Center Due This Week

This undated photo shows the Encina Power Station and the site of the proposed Carlsbad Energy Center from the Pannonia Trail at Capri Park in Carlsbad.
NRG
This undated photo shows the Encina Power Station and the site of the proposed Carlsbad Energy Center from the Pannonia Trail at Capri Park in Carlsbad.

Long-Awaited Vote On Carlsbad Energy Center Due This Week
GUEST:Alison St John, North County bureau editor, KPBS

Remind you of a 1950s sci-fi movie but it's a 21st century phenomenon scientists are struggling to understand. It's called the blob. 8000-mile 300-foot deep stretch of warm seawater spread along the Pacific Coast. Experts are speculating that it could be responsible for the dead seabirds and stranded sea lion pups on our beaches. But what it might mean for California's weather and the larger issue of climate change is a hotly debated topic. Scientists teleconference this week in San Diego to debate and theorize about what the effects of this warm water blob maybe. And so far there's no consensus. Joining me are Art Miller, climate researcher with Scripps institution of oceanography and Francisco Chavez, senior scientist at the Monterey Bay aquarium research Institute. Francisco, welcome. Art, let me start with you. When we say that this massive sea water is warmer than normal, how much warmer are talking about? Some parts of it can be 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than typical conditions and this is so far off the scale and those locations that it is just mind blowing. Typically the anomalies are about three standard deviations if you think in terms of that which would be a few degrees above normal. That alone is an amazing signature when you consider the size of this warm water mass that's on top of the Pacific. The surface mixed layer is warm persisted for months and months and its impact on the marine ecosystem is the most vital question and for us dialysis who like to think about what causes it, we are trying to understand the source mechanism for generating it and why the atmosphere was so persistent in that time period in setting up this warm anomalous state. Francisco, you have been studying what are mentioned, what effects this might have on ecosystem and the living, the marine mammals and the creatures and the plants that live in the ocean so what changes in the oceans food change when there is a boost in temperature like t hat? The temperature is a proxy for lack of nutrients or fertilizer. Typically the region we live in is affected by a process called -- where cold water that is rich in nutrition, kind of like a compost is brought to the surface and small plants photosynthesize and grow and everything else these on them. The lack of that process leads to lower productivity, lower food availability for organisms like sea lions who have been probably the most affected dying in significant numbers. Francisco, we have seen in addition to stranded sea lion pups a lot of different sorts of strange things happening in our Ocean lately. OSHA lately. We've seen different types of fish we don't normally see because they usually hang out in Mexico in the southern Pacific. We've been seeing the schools of killer whales on Oceanside. These are Southern Pacific killer whales. Are these events also linked to the blob? Yes, certainly. These are things that typically happen during the El Niño events. We get a lot more tropical sea life in the region, but what's puzzling and unusual about the blob is the fact that it's not release far east associated with El Niño. Yet the impacts are almost the same. See life from many other parts of the world are coming to our seashores. Because the ocean water is warmer. t he met exactly. Arts, why is it called the blob? That's a funny story because one of our collaborators in the University of Washington, he was one of the first guys to noticed this strange big circular pattern in the middle of the North Pacific just south of the Alaska region that really hadn't reach our coast at the time. It was about 2000 kilometers in its diameter any noticed it was just in the upper 100 meters of the ocean and he was thinking about it one night before he was going to be interviewed by the press and decide to call the blob. It is basically a detached pattern of warming and it really wasn't detected to other structures that would typically see associated with that particular region being cold or warm. The magnitude was kind of intimidating at least for the ocean biology. Scientists do know, art, the Pacific Ocean goes through warm phases and it goes through cold phases. Those phases can last decades. What are some of the theories about how the blob might fit into these cyclical changes? Typically those changes interpreter we associate with patterns of variability and they can say deck -- have a degree or 1 degrees centigrade changes. We are talking now three to 4 degrees large-scale anomalies that don't match the typical patterns we see so we have to look for what physical mechanism can set that up for such a long period of time. There is some suggestion in the western tropical Pacific, not the place you would associate with El Niño at the far west is the source of the disturbance to the atmosphere that propagates through the weather patterns you would see along the North Pacific and drives that anomalous blob and that is linked potentially to the same weather patterns that have set up the drought over the last couple of years. So there is some climate scientists and some or oceanography who think this blob is actually resembles the warm pool of seawater that it. And Trent typically indicates an El Niño. I was talking about the origins of it. Since that time it has equal and moved towards the east and now occupies a big portion structure all along the coastal -- now it's not really out in the Central anymore. It's along the coast. It is still one or 2000 kilometers wide. That is the parent that in fact we would associate with the tele- connections from the tropics associated with El Niño. We haven't had a strong El Niño to set that up. From a dynamical perspective we think this is a random perturbation in the atmosphere driving it in a way that could be associated with El Niño but is necessary. So it resembles where it is located now it resembles the collection of warm water that would pool because of an El Niño at you haven't seen the starting El Niño to cause this? Correct. Okay. Scientists have known for years -- the Pacific salmon populations die off when the ocean warms and so all of these see life there is this cyclical pattern of warm and cold, what's different about this in the way that it's actually affecting see life? It's not necessarily that different. The big difference between an El Niño and what we are seeing right now in terms of productivity is this warming is very surface trapped. This nutrition I talked about earlier is still relatively close to the surface sort of keeping see life going. Here in Monterey, even in the face of all of these warm anomalies we've had an incredible abundance of Wales and we still think forage is sticking around. The other questions going back to your salmon variability, and art alluded to this earlier, we have these cyclical cycles that last 20 or 30 years. The sardine disappearance of California in the 40s we think was associated with this change in regime. Scientists are asking themselves -- we had a relatively cool period after 97 and 98 where the ocean has been unusually cool also contributing to our d rought. Is this Bob a signature of the change into a warmer regime in which things will be very different? And things would be wetter. And could be wetter. That is what we have to live with. We reviewed it in the mean. We are either cold and dry or warm and wet. When he think you think about that, art? That this could signal a return of wet winters not only Southern California but a large band in the southern part of the United States? I think we have to wait to see what's going to happen next. The state of the ocean in the North Pacific does not directly drive the changes in the atmospheric flow that might lead to the more rain in winter time. The atmosphere has to organize that pattern itself and the response that we are seeing in the ocean now is the imprint of the behavior of the atmosphere. I wouldn't be able to venture a guess how that was going to affect this. This pattern is set up strongly over the summertime when we really didn't -- but we don't get rain. It's not going to affect the rainfall at the time but it did give us consistently warm days over the whole summer in places like San Diego and other places up and down the coast. One of the other interesting things what Francisco mentioned, this thick mat of warm water sitting there without a strong impact of -- the up welling favorable winds are blowing like normal so they are struggling to bring nutrients to the surface but this matter of warm water is trying to prevent that. That is the unusual thing about this to have such a strong anomaly that still has a lot of normal conditions and other physical barriers around it and the biology, were not sure how it response to that type of situation. It as products of productivity on the coast and then gets squelched out by this matter of warm water. What is great now is we have this massive network of observations. The workshop was to bring in -- up and down the food chain, different types of physical variables to try to put together in see what's unique about this event and what we can learn about the future. For instance, the state we are seeing now is warm conditions. We would expect 50 years from now for the ocean should be warmer so it might be up to use this as an analog what to anticipate of -- with regard to economically important species like fisheries and charismatic species like marine mammals and sea lions. That is if the blob dissipates or we could be living the future now. We look at this as a fluctuating system that we are probably in a swing. The other physical forcing which is trapping more heat due to greenhouse gases that will also cause similar types of warming but it's not as strong right now compared to this natural fluctuation but we can use this as an analog and what to anticipate. As I said, there is no consensus. There are some climate researchers and oceanographers who are the updated this blob of warm water does signal a shift and is going to make this situation break our drought and make it a lot rainier in Southern California for several years to come. If I understand you correctly, art, a chicken and egg s ituation. What you were saying the war mass is not necessarily going to cause rainfall but that the persistent high pressure ridge that is keeping it so warm and so dry in Southern California is actually what caused the blob? Correct. There are some local effects on the atmosphere the warm water will cause. We have associated that the stratus clouds along our coast are sensitive to the sea surface temperature and because it was such warm warm -- we had sunnier days on average. Not huge effects but some e ffect. The idea that as the atmosphere is moving from the ocean to the land if the ocean is anonymously warm, the air in the atmospheric boundary layer we essentially live on is going to be warmer than normal. People who live in Seattle, Oregon and California, as the air moves in it will be a little bit warmer. It's not going to see if it's going to be raining but it will make a warmer. You have local effects track of the surface that are not the main driving variations in the atmosphere but they are -- within. So when will we know who is right? Give us another 10 years. We have observational systems set up to measure this so we can want to grow, stay the same participate in the coming years. IPO speaking with Francisco Francisco Chavez, senior scientist with the Monterey Bay aquarium research Institute and Art Miller with Scripps Institute of oceanography. Thank you both very much.

Decisions being made now will affect how we generate our energy for years to come.

A long-awaited vote could come Thursday that would determine whether a new gas powered "peaker” plant is built on the coast in Carlsbad at the site of the existing Encina power plant.

The Encina plant is due to be shut down in 2017.

The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to decide whether to approve SDG&E’s plan to replace some of the power lost when San Onofre shut down with the new gas plant, called the Carlsbad Energy Center.

Opponents of the new plant, like Pete Hasapopoulos of the Sierra Club, support a recommendation made in March by a CPUC administrative law judge. The judge advised the commissioners to wait until SDG&E reviewed possible renewable power options.

“The administrative law judge, based upon the facts and after hearing expert testimony — she's already concluded that no gas plant should be approved of any sort, because SDG&E is sitting on bids from clean energy providers to get this job done,” Hasapopoulos said.

After the administrative law judge made her recommendation, new CPUC President Michael Picker recommended a slightly altered plan: to reduce the size of the Carlsbad Energy Center from 600 to 500 megawatts. That would leave an extra 100 megawatts to be generated by renewables.

Ahmed Haque of NRG, the company that wants to build the gas plant, said his company supports renewable energy sources too, but the gas fired “peaker” plant is still needed.

“Wind and solar are not available 24/7 yet, to meet the reliability needs 24 hours a day," Haque said. “You need backup generation for when the wind is not blowing and for solar when the sun is not shining. A facility like the Carlsbad Energy Center provides on-demand back up generation when it is needed that can help integrate renewable power, as well as preserve the reliability that we really take for granted."

The city of Carlsbad initially opposed the new plant, hoping to be able to use the coastal land for something less industrial. But part of the bargain NRG struck with Carlsbad was to demolish the chimney of the old Encina gas plant. The smoke stack has been a fixture on Highway 101 since the 1950s.

SDG&E comments to the CPUC

SDG&E has submitted two comments to the State Public Utilities commissioners. The first explained that it will present commission staff with information about bids it has received from renewable energy providers. The company noted that the California legislature is considering increasing access to renewable energy. In recent weeks the governor has upped the anti on his energy goals.

The second comment affirmed the company’s support of the California Energy Center, saying it would have many benefits: “not the least of which would be to facilitate the timely retirement of the region’s last once- through-cooling units (the 965 MW Encina Power Station) and to replace a costly, inefficient and high emissions power plant."

SDG&E spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp wrote:

“SDG&E has been supportive of the Carlsbad Energy Center since the permanent closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Station in the summer of 2013.

"However, due to a delay in the Commission’s processing of our application, two things occurred: we began to see the bids in the RFO and felt compelled to encourage the Commission to review them; and as the delay continued, we began to see other regulatory and legislative events that gave us pause for some level of concern."