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SoCal Coastal Gas Generation Repowering Still in Limbo

Although state authorities can overrule local opposition, the fate of long-standing plans for NRG Energy Inc. to repower its 100-acre natural gas-fired electric generation complex in Carlsbad, CA, remain uncertain following the completion Friday of two days of local hearings by the California Energy Commission (CEC).

As a result of the hearings and staff work earlier this year, the lead CEC commissioner on the case now thinks a decision can be made this year. "I look forward to concluding this case in the not-too-distant future if that is feasible and possible," said Commissioner James Boyd, who is also CEC vice chairman.

Dating back four years, the CEC two-member review committee earlier in May provisionally recommended approval of the project in which NRG is proposing what it characterizes as a more environmentally friendly generation source than the current 965 MW Encina Power Station, which has five steam-driven turbines and 400-foot smokestacks. NRG wants to replace it with a combined-cycle 558 MW gas-fired plant (see Daily GPI, May 11).

It would operate in tandem with a scaled-back version of Encina until the original plant is shut down in 2016. And the new plant would abandon Encina's sea water cooling system for air cooling, and it would be relocated farther from the coast on 23 of the 100 acres now taken up by Encina.

In the two days of CEC hearings, however, local officials from the mayor through local business and environmental representatives asked the CEC to reject the proposal. Ideally, they want the old plant closed and the coastal property protected under the city's coastal management plan.

"Obviously, we are very disappointed with [the CEC proposed] decision at this time," said Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall, who raised safety and legal concerns with NRG's plans.

"This project is unlike the existing one, putting large pieces of industrial equipment that are basically sitting out in an open pit, so in case of a fire or explosion, we are going to have to respond to that, and we need the proper spacing [of generators] to do that. This is unlike the existing [generators] that are housed in a large concrete facility," Hall said.

Hall said that the safety concern is "compounded" by the fact the Interstate 5 highway is adjacent to the proposed plant and a major rail line between San Diego and Los Angeles also is located on the other, coastal side, of the proposed site. Finally, he was adamant in alleging that the proposed plant repowering violates the local laws related to Carlsbad's coastal plan and a local rail-trail program, along with violating its coastal redevelopment plan and planning laws.

Boyd called the NRG project "a long, drawn-out process that could have been concluded earlier if it had not been for other high-level priorities placed in front of the CEC staff regarding federal stimulus monies and projects proposed throughout the state."

Boyd said the CEC staff has now gotten the NRG proposal "back on track."

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