California Utility Commissioners Deliberate In Public And Private Meetings In San Diego
CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, the California Public Utilities Commission is holding a close-door stakeholder meeting in San Diego today. It comes one day before a vote on whether to build to peaker plants in San Diego County. Environmental groups are outraged that they have been excluded from this event and are filing suit to stop it. Joining me is Bill Powers, consulting engineer with Powering Engineering on behalf of the California environmental justice alliance. Welcome back to the program. POWERS: Thank you, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: CleanTECH San Diego refused our invitation to San Diego. But yesterday, Jim Waring spoke to Alison St. John about the group's participation in today's meeting. During that conversation yesterday, Jim denied that CleanTECH is hosting the meeting. Here is what he had to say. JIM WARING: CleanTECH San Diego is not hosting this event. We posted the invitation on our website, broadcast it on our website, and to our members. And a number of our members took advantage of it to attend. And it was -- and other organizations like our, and I don't know specifically which one, but also organizations also posted this opportunity. CAVANAUGH: What problem do you see in CleanTECH either hosting or promoting this meeting? POWERS: Well, there are a couple of problems. One problem with CleanTECH in particular is has at least the aura of being partisan in this particular issue. They are in favor of the gas plants. SDG&E which is the proponent at the PUC, is a founding member of CleanTECH, along with Sempra. SDG&E is on the board of director bes of CleanTECH. One of the companies hoping to get these contracts will rush generating members of CleanTECH. So it gives the impression that they have a strong stake in the outcome of the critical vote tomorrow on this issue. CAVANAUGH: And Clean TECH San Diego is a nonprofit member organization. It promotes advances in clean technology. So the people who are members of CleanTECH having advice to members of the CPUC, is that where you find the problem lies as you see it? POWERS: That's correct. In this case the focus isn't on CleanTECH. CleanTECH just happens to be in the middle of this controversy in San Diego. The issue is that we have a law in California, the Bagley-Keene open meeting law, which is supposed to ensure that even in situations that give an impression that a quorum of commissioners are together meeting with private party, that that is open to any member of the public who wants to attend to assure that the public has the ability, one, to monitor that these invitation-only members could be speaking in chorus on something, and that's the whole point of this open meeting act, to assure that the public can monitor when a quorum of commissioners either in an informal setting like this or of course in a business meeting where they're going to actually take the decision. CAVANAUGH: Do we know who has been invited to this meeting? POWERS: No. My understanding is that the PUC has agreed to make a list of attendees public after the meeting tomorrow. Or sometime in the near future. CAVANAUGH: Now, all the members of the California public utilities commission are attending this event in La Jolla today with "local government officials and community stakeholders." The CPUC declined our request to be interviewed, but they sent a statement. And it reads in part "the purpose of these meetings is to open a conversation, create a relationship, and see where the CPUC might be of service to the local community. The meetings are always followed by a publicly noticed meeting open to everyone at which anyone wishing to address the commissioners may do so." And they go on to say that "open proceedings such as songs, San Onofre nuclear power plant, and peaker plants are not to be discussed at this event being held today in San Diego" what's your suspense to that? POWERS: Well, my response is that thousands of so called stakeholders seek access to the commissioners because -- precisely because they have a stake in the outcome. It's interesting that they identify this meeting as a stakeholder meeting. That's right. You have people there that see at some level they have a stake in the outcome. And the process in the formal business meeting is much different. You have three minutes, you are able to make your public comments. This is quite different. This is an all-day meeting where the individuals that attend are for lack of a better word guaranteeing one-on-one access with each one of the commissioners during the day. That's a priceless level of access. What the community is hoping for is not that this meeting be terminated or stopped but that it be moved to a venue like golden hall, and be opened up to every member of the public. That way the public and the press can monitor what's happening. And if there is a litany or chorus of voices speaking off the same song sheet, endorsing reasons or justifications for these plans, there will be people there who can respond. CAVANAUGH: We did talk about Jim Waring of CleanTECH yesterday. We recorded that conversation. And one of the things that was stressed is that the people who are at this meeting see each of these commissioners separately, and they're not to tell one commissioner what they talked about to the next commissioner that they actually see. And Jim answered this way when he was asked what kinds of conversations might be allowed. JIM WARING: What is the role of peaker plants as we deploy more and more renewables? Are they seeing a trend around the state that requires more peekers or are the peaker plants getting more efficient so we need less of them? And how do they balance? I don't even know whether they'd want to have that discussion, but that's the kind of thing I'd like to talk about at a macro level. Where do they see the trend lines on how these kinds of on-demand energy generation fit into our future over the next couple of decades? CAVANAUGH: Your reaction to that. The idea that even though they may be talking, and we don't even know, but even thethey bring up the topic of peaker plants, they'll be talking about it as a larger policy issue. POWERS: Two reactions. One, the idea that it's the stakeholders' responsibility to avoid saying the same thing to different commissioners consecutively, the Bagley-Keene open meeting law applies to the commissioners, not to the stakeholders. It's not the responsibility of the stakeholder to educate him or herself on the spot to avoid putting the commissioners in a compromising position that they put themselves in. Jim's example is exactly one of the elements in the proceeding that we're discussing. I'm an expert witness in that proceeding. The issue of whether these gas plants are needed in order to smooth out the solar and wind production over time, not only is it one of the issues in the proceeding but it's been rejected as an issue in the proceeding. So that's precisely the type of conversation that does need to be monitored. So the commissioners aren't receiving what I will call for lack of a better word urban legends about the need for these plants in a closed and potentially imbalanced situation. CAVANAUGH: I want to talk more specifically about that issue. But first I want to ask you, what was the result of the legal challenge to today's meeting? POWERS: The result of the legal challenge, the superior court judge Taylor heard this, the request for the complaint on Monday. He listened attentively but was not sure that the superior court was the right jurisdiction. There was an emergency request to the appellate court to hear. They have denied the immediate hearing of that appeal. So it will go to a more standard form of appeal. So it's very much alive. It just will not stop or move the meeting that's happening today. CAVANAUGH: Got it. Now, tomorrow the CPUC will vote on whether to allow peaker plants to be built in San Diego County. Can you remind us what are peaker plants? POWERS: Peaker plants are -- functionally they're equivalent to the jet engine on the wing of an airplane hooked to an electric generator. They're normally intended to be used during times of peek demand when you might use them only 2-3% of the time during the year, hot afternoon, or to fill in for some other reason. In this particular proceeding, what has happened is that SDG&E has projected that years from now, May be a gap that needs to be filled. And that's what the commissioner, using the most conservative assumptions concluded, that possibly in 2018 there could be a need for some of that capacity. And it's based on assuming the Encino power plant in Carlsbad is retired in 2017. It's based on SDG&E not renewing the lease to NRG for 200 megawatts of peakers. And that's been one of the issues in the case. Some of these justifications for building these peakers to be almost logic pretzels, we're tying ourselves in knots to come up with some justification for building them. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And they are fuelled by natural gas; is that right? POWERS: Yes, these are natural gas-fired peaker plantses. Which is in some way to the person in the street, might appear to be an oxymoron. We're building natural gas fire plants to prepare our green future. And it is in fact an oxymoron. We do not need to build these gas plants. But there's program pressure on the commission. Also coming to be fair from the president of the commission on the other commissioners to make at least one of these new plants happen. CAVANAUGH: And the plants that we're talking about that are being proposed are Quail Brush, that's located right on the borderline between San Diego City and Santee, and the pio Pico plant in Otay Mesa. Let me just play a bite from Jim Waring again from CleanTECH San Diego. He told us if you support green energy like solar and wind, you have to support peaker plants. JIM WARING: Based upon existing technology, you are cannot have the appointment of renewables without having peaker plantings. So that's a given. 99% of people would agree with that statement. The variable is what does that really mean though? Where should the peaker plants be located? Should they be close like the Quail Brush or can we do it from a remote location? How should they be owned and built so they don't become such a burden on ratepayers because of the expense of building these things? But part of having a renewable portfolio to avoid brownouts and blackouts is to have on-demand capacity. CAVANAUGH: So he made the argument that you need, if you're going to be relying more on solar and wind when the clouds come out and when the wind dies down, you need peaker plants like this to maintain supply. I don't know if you can speak for environmentalists, but what is the other argument against that idea? POWERS: I can agree with Jim on one point. These will put a heavy cost burden on ratepayers. That's the central point of the argument. When he fails to mention is we have hundreds and hundreds of megawatts of fast-start peakers in San Diego already. One of the artifacts of a big build-out in the last decade of gas plants in the state is we have a tremendous excess of reserves of generation capacity. That's why San Onofre did not affect us at all last summer. We have a tremendous excess of reserves. And so the gas plants that we need are already built. The issue of if you have solar and wind, you must have gas plants, again we have gas plants. But this is an old paradigm where you're building conventional resources ostensibly to assure renewable future. Energy efficiency measures, rapidly reducing loads, building more solar rooftops, and adding energy storage are excellent alternatives to this type of conventional mentality. CAVANAUGH: Just a quick question to you. The City of San Diego, the City Council said no to the proposal to build Quail Brush. But the CPUC can override that? POWERS: The CPUC authorizes the contract. Another state agency, the California energy commission authorizes the environmental permit. That issue related to the California energy mission issuing an environmental permit. The California energy commission does have the power to override the city on a land use ordinance. And so if it chose to say that there was an overriding need for this gas plant, they could mandate and override the city, yes. CAVANAUGH: Okay. This is one of our topics that we sort of have to be will be continued tomorrow because with the vote on these peaker plants, it does take place tomorrow, the CPUC meeting tomorrow is open to the public, it starts at 9:00 AM at the San Diego County operations center.
The Public Utilities Commission has promised to hold a public meeting in San Diego soon about whether rate payers should continue to pay for the shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant. But today the agency is holding a private, invitation-only meeting in La Jolla, one day before a public meeting where Commissioners will decide about three new gas powered plants in San Diego.
Bill Powers, an energy consultant, applied to attend today’s meeting and was initially accepted. However he was subsequently told the meeting was full. The CPUC said it plans to hold the meeting in three groups with about 20 people in each.
Powers said the decision to hold a private stakeholders meeting might go unnoticed except that so many major issues are on the table that affect San Diego’s energy future.
“These are momentous discussions for local people of all stripes,” he said, “and to have it reduced to only a handful of invitation-only folks who get to meet with the commissioners individually - that I definitely interpret as a violation of the Bagley Keene Open Meeting Act.”
Former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre filed for an injunction to stop the meeting in Superior Court, but the judge on Monday said the decision is not within his jurisdiction. Aguirre said he plans to file an appeal.
The CPUC said nothing on the agenda of the public meeting on Thursday will be discussed at the private meeting on Wednesday, and there will never be more than two commissioners in the room with each group. That avoids violating the state’s open meeting laws. The agency has held similar meetings in other California cities with no complaints. A spokesman would not reveal who was on the list of people invited to attend the meeting in La Jolla, nor is the media allowed to cover the event.
Jim Waring, CEO of Clean TECH, a non-profit industry group that works to promote sustainable business practices, helped the CPUC organize the private meeting. He himself is not attending. When asked what the participants will discuss if they cannot touch on issues before the commissioners, he said it will be very general.
“They have an informal discussion of issues that are not on the agenda,” he said, “you might have a general discussion around solar deployment or wind deployment. It is just an informal exchange of ideas and information.”
At their public meeting on Thursday, the Commissioners will vote on new “peaker” power plants, that could be fired up in the event that enough power is not being generated elsewhere. San Diego city council has voted against the proposed Quail Brush peaker plant near Santee. Another peaker plant, Pio Pico in Otay Mesa, is opposed by groups who say building the plants will reduce the incentive to develop more rooftop solar.
Meanwhile a date has yet to be set for a public hearing in San Diego on the ongoing investigation into San Onofre’s problems.