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After 64 years, Encina Power Plant goes dark

CARLSBAD — Just before the stroke of midnight on Dec. 11, the iconic Encina Power Plant ceased power-generating operations for the first time since its construction in 1954.

Carlsbad City Attorney Celia Brewer made the announcement during the City Council meeting, receiving an enthusiastic applause from the packed house. Taking Encina’s place is the Carlsbad Energy Center, a natural gas “peaker” plant, which will generate about 530 megawatts of flexible power to the region, according toNRG Energy spokesman David Knox. NRG Energy owns both facilities.

As for the city, Assistant City Manager Gary Barberio said an agreement between NRG Energy and the city requires the power company to decommission and demolish the plant within three years. The old facility used to generate 965 MW, he said.

“It is definitely iconic, the building and tower. The power plant’s been there for pretty much the city’s entire life,” he said. “Some say it’s a beacon and some say it’s an eyesore. Nonetheless, it’s an older plant that’s served its useful life and now we’ll have a different source of power that is cleaner.”

The first step, though, is for NRG Energy to decommission the plant, which may take up to a year. Once the decommission is complete, the agreement states NRG Energy has two years to demolish Encina.

The peaker plant is an upgrade over the former oil and natural gas Encina facility. Knox said the company had to pivot after the state passed regulations against the use of siphoning seawater to use to cool the plant. To cool the peaker plant, NRG Energy uses recycled water.

But advances in technology have made for a more efficient replacement, he added. The former plant took 12 to 18 hours to start up all the while releasing emissions. The peaker plant, however, takes just 10 minutes and it is much easier for the company to accurately feed the power grid, which is owned by SanDiego Gas & Electric.

“It’s fast, flexible natural gas,” Knox said. “Predicting in 10 minutes is real easy. Predicting in 12 to 18 hours is real hard. Power increase, especially with renewable, you can need more power quickly and you can provide that. This is a much more flexible and dispatchable technology that allows you to bring the power to bear when you need it, and turn it off when you don’t.”

Perhaps the biggest aspect of the agreement is the redevelopment of the Encina PowerPlant. Barberio said NRG Energy must conduct robust outreach with the community. Knox said NRG Energy will begin those efforts in 2019.

SDG&E also owns several acres on the site — Cannon Park, which the city operates, and its North Coast Operations Center along Cannon Road. The city is the land-use regulator, Barberio said. He said another part of the redevelopment plan is the city finding a suitable location elsewhere in the city for the operations center.

A switch station, owned by SDG&E, will remain on site to transition power from the peaker plant to the grid.

“The city’s long-term goal was to remove as much of the industrial uses from the approximate area as possible,” Barberio explained. “For the past 20 years or so, the city’s goal has been to try and find a new location for those industrial uses.”

Finished in 1954, the Encina Power Plant incorporated its iconic smokestack along Carlsbad Boulevard. Barberio said during construction, the city of Oceanside attempted to annex much of the coastline including the power plant, as a way to increase its tax base.

However, the ensuing vote failed and Carlsbad officially incorporated in 1952 to keep the plant within the new city limits.

“The last 15 years, the city has worked with NRG and SDG&E to try and retire Encina and get it demolished,” Barberio said. “The peaker plant is designed to be cleaner and run less.”

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