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Greens Challenge Gas Power Plant Approval

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Environmental groups appealed the California Public Utilities Commission's approval of a $2 billion gas plant to be built in San Diego County, a vote the groups say undermines the commission's own clean-energy rules.

The Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice attorney William Rostov, filed the appeal with California's First Appellate District on Monday, challenging the commission's decision to allow San Diego Gas & Electric to build a gas plant in the north coast portion of San Diego County near Carlsbad.

The gas plant will supply some of the energy lost from the shuttered San Onofre nuclear plant.

But the Sierra Club says the commission's decision sidesteps an earlier finding by an administrative law judge that the utility failed to vet clean-energy options before going with a fossil fuel plant.

The group says the commission even disregarded its own policy on clean energy as outlined in their loading order rule, which requires investor-owned utilities to meet energy needs with all feasible and cost-effective clean-energy sources before resorting to fossil fuels.

San Diego Gas & Electric ignored bids for renewable energy options and instead went with the natural gas option from NRG to build the proposed Carlsbad Energy Center. And the rushed commission vote to meet a 2018 deadline - preventing the review of competitive bids from other energy sources - was fabricated and the utility actually needed to meet capacity needs by 2022, not 2018, the group says.

The commission approved the gas plant, overriding the administrative law judge's decision to allow for open bidding from other energy sources, as well as the previous San Onofre decision that required the utility to meet "some or all" of its procurement through an "all-source" request for offers, the group says. The request-for-offers process would allow clean energy sources to compete with conventional natural gas plant bids in filling the energy void left by the closure of the nuclear plant.

"It's times like these when you need judicial review to ensure that public utilities commissions not only comply with the law, but also make the best decisions in the interest of the people," Rostov said. "The commission should not be able to get away with contradicting its own clean-energy objectives."

The new gas plant would emit 840,000 tons of new carbon emissions per year, according to Earthjustice.

San Diego Gas & Electric senior communications manager Stephanie Donovan said the utility's attorneys are still reviewing the appeal.

The company this year became the first utility to provide 33 percent of electricity to their customers from renewable resources, five years ahead of the state's target date, according to Donovan.

"The addition of this clean-burning, natural gas peaker facility is expected to keep our power grid running smoothly and should allow for the retirement of an aging, inefficient power plant," Donovan said. "Meeting San Diego's clean-energy objectives will require a modern grid that incorporates the Carlsbad Energy Center, as well as battery storage, electric vehicles, and other clean-energy innovations."

The commission did not return a call to their media line requesting comment.

Sierra Club senior attorney Matt Vespa said the clean energy community "felt pretty jilted" about the commission's vote.

"There is a real history with backroom deal-making with this commission and they rubber-stamp things not in the best interest of people," Vespa said. "All Californians benefit from competition. It ensures we get the best deal."

According to the California Air Resources Board, greenhouse gas emissions rose in California for the first time since 2008 in 2012, due to an increase in gas energy use after the San Onofre plant was closed.

The Protect Our Communities Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity are also expected to appeal the commission's decision.

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