Escondido, Calif., Power Plant Assembly Gets Under Way

ESCONDIDO, Calif. -- Besides the pair of yellow cranes that tower over the western side of the city, the most prominent objects now in place at the Palomar Energy Project construction site are two rectangular metal boxes.

The bowl of earth that mostly surrounds the 20-acre site conceals the full size of the boxes, which stand about 70 feet. The boxes will serve as air intakes for the 546-megawatt Palomar Energy natural gas power plant scheduled for completion in 2006.

The plant sits at the northeastern edge of 186-acre site being developed as the Escondido Research and Technology Center, a business park that city officials hope will create 4,000 new jobs. For now, the area southwest of the Highway 78 and Interstate 15 interchange is a playground for earthmoving equipment.

On Tuesday, the site west of Vineyard Avenue was a hive of activity. A maze of ditches that will contain a network of pipes stretched across the southern half of the Palomar Energy property. On the west edge of the site, a drill pulled rock out of the hillside.

"We're sort of stuck here in this bowl, so the taller cranes really help us maneuver things around," said Alan Zachary, construction manager for Palomar Energy. "Once our work is all above the ground, we won't need the big earthmovers as much."

Construction on the power plant started in July and is about 9 percent complete, with a target date to start operations in 2006, according to Zachary. Palomar Energy plans call for the plant's combustion turbines and steam generators to rise above the air intakes, to about 100 feet.

The construction work is employing about 180 people, and by next year that number will swell to between 300 and 400 people as the power plant is built, Zachary said.

While work is under way on the power plant, real estate brokers say they are in the process of nailing down companies for the business park, which is targeted to at least partially open next year.

"Demand is very high," said Mike Erwin at Grubb & Ellis in Carlsbad. "It's one of the hottest locations in San Diego County."

Erwin said he is negotiating sales for several buildings in the park, including a 120,000-square-foot site, a 50,000-square-foot site, and a 45,000-square-foot site. He described the interested companies as a mixture of life sciences research companies and industrial ones. The only confirmed tenants are the power plant and Stone Brewing Co., the San Marcos-based beer maker, Erwin said.

City officials have been pushing for Palomar Pomerado Health to build a new 453-bed hospital within the business park. Construction of the new hospital could depend on passage of Proposition BB, the $496 million bond measure that was on Tuesday's ballot.

Neighbors have been following the construction with their ears ever since grading began in February. A hotline for neighbors to call with noise complaints was set up when the California Energy Commission approved the project in 2003. Their concerns focus mainly on noise, dust and the explosives being used to break up the granite, according to Chris Davis, spokesman for the commission.

Mark Rodriguez, who lives west of the site, said he was concerned about the water that will be used by the power plant's cooling towers.

The Hale Avenue Resource Recovery Facility will supply all of the 3 million gallons of water needed daily by the plant. The Hale plant collects residential and industrial wastewater, treats it and currently sends most of its output via a 14-mile pipeline into the ocean near San Elijo Lagoon.

When operational, the power plant will use chlorinated water, Rodriguez said.

"Basically, it's going to make the entire area smell like a swimming pool," Rodriguez predicted.

Escondido-based JRMC Real Estate is managing construction at the business park. JRMC President James McCann was unavailable for comment this week. McCann told the North County Times earlier this year that grading activity should be finished by the end of the year, at which point construction at the business park would begin.

The $410 million power plant is being built by Sempra Energy Resources and is scheduled to sell it to San Diego Gas & Electric Co. in June 2006, according to Art Larson, spokesman for Sempra Energy. Both Sempra Energy Resources and SDG&E are subsidiary companies of Sempra Energy.