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Encina smokestack
According to an agreement between NRG Energy and the City of Carlsbad, the entire Encina Power Station, including its iconic smokestack, is scheduled to be torn down by the end of 2021. Photo by Anthony Mata
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Carlsbad’s iconic smokestack coming down

CARLSBAD — Eyesore or landmark? Either way, deconstruction efforts are currently underway of an iconic 400-foot smokestack towering above the Encina Power Station nestled along the Carlsbad coastline.

Additionally, the retired power plant, owned by NRG Energy and home to San Diego Gas & Electric’s operations center, is slated to be completely torn down by September 2021 as part of an agreement between the energy company and the City of Carlsbad.

The next steps for all parties involved, including SDG&E, are to figure out how to redevelop the property.

As for the smokestack, NRG agreed in a 2014 settlement to remove the stack over safety concerns, according to NRG spokesperson Chris Rimel. NRG owns most of the acreage on the parcel situated along Carlsbad Boulevard, while SDG&E owns the southern portion of the property consisting of approximately 12 acres along Cannon Road.

Encina Power Station
Encina Power Station situated along the Carlsbad coastline. Photo by Anthony Mata

“It’s their land and the agreement calls for them to work with the city,” said Carlsbad Deputy City Manager Gary Barberio. “They haven’t approached the city yet with the redevelopment process. They are starting to think that way now.”

The property also includes the Carlsbad Energy Center, which houses a switching station owned by SDG&E, transitioning power from the 500-megawatt natural gas peaking plant sitting just to the north. SDG&E’s plant came online in 2017 and can be activated in minutes to address power needs based on usage rates.

The Encina facility, originally built in 1954 as San Diego County’s largest fossil-fuel (oil) power plant, was retired in 2018. In 2000, Encina transitioned the station from oil to natural gas.

At its peak, the power plant had a capacity of 965 megawatts of power, meeting the needs of up to one million customers, according to NRG’s website.

Encina Power Station smokestack
A drone captures the inside of a 400-foot smokestack atop Encina Power Station in Carlsbad. Photo by Anthony Mata

Today, the future of the property remains undetermined while three entities have yet to begin formal discussions on how to proceed. Since the City of Carlsbad does not own any of the property, including Cannon Park, the three entities must abide by the agreement. The city leases the park from SDG&E and is responsible for its maintenance.

Barberio said while discussions have yet to begin in earnest, NRG has stated it will engage in a robust public outreach campaign to determine the future of the property.

But there are some challenges, Barberio said. Most notably among them is finding a suitable location for SDG&E’s operations center. The facility employs about 125 employees, including electric troubleshooters, gas emergency response crews and maintenance crews, according to Helen Gao, an SDG&E spokeswoman.

Gao said this operating district serves nearly 250,000 customers. The area is bounded roughly by Camp Pendleton to the north, state Route 56/Pacific Highlands Ranch to the south, the coastline to the west and the eastern boundary a few miles west of Interstate 15.

“We continue to work collaboratively with the City of Carlsbad and NRG to identify a solution that would meet the needs of all the key stakeholders,” Gao said. “Many factors need to be taken into account to find a suitable relocation site for our North Coast operations center. For example, a site must have easy access in and out so our field crews can respond quickly to gas and electric emergencies, as well as customer service requests.”

Barberio echoed those comments, saying the new location must be in a specific geographic area and suitable for grading, although neither the city nor SDG&E has found a suitable location.

Barberior said SDG&E’s operations center must remain in Carlsbad and west of El Camino Real, but all parties are motivated to find the energy hub a new home. Once a location is found, NRG will pay up to $22 million toward the construction of the new center and the city would take ownership of SDG&E’s current land at the power plant, including the park, according to Barberio.

Encina Power Station
Encina’s facility was first built in 1954. Photo by Anthony Mata

“The Encina site is designated Visitor-Serving Commercial and Open Space, and as such, may include commercial uses, such as retail and hotel, with new community-accessible open spaces along the lagoon and waterfront that encourages community gathering spaces, outdoor dining and other features to maximize views of the ocean and lagoon,’” Rimel added.

Should the operations center remain at its current location, NRG would pay the city $10 million.

As for the redevelopment, the land is zoned as visitor-commercial and open space, Barberio said. If the city acquired SDG&E’s land, Barberio believes the city and NRG could work together on a redevelopment plan.

“NRG is motivated to find a new location because they don’t want a public works operations center next door,” Barberio said. “It would also possible assist with their redevelopment plan to access. Right now, they don’t have any frontage on Cannon Road.”