The nation’s top energy official on Thursday proposed naming a pair of “national interest electric transmission corridors,” including one covering San Diego, Riverside and five other Southern California counties, as well as parts of Arizona and Nevada.
Designating national power corridors could make it easier for San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to build a high-voltage power line across the county’s desert and backcountry.
“These draft designations set us on the path to modernize our constrained and congested electric power infrastructure,” said U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman in a statement.
The other proposed national electric corridor is on the East Coast, encompassing the metropolitan areas of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City.
If adopted later this year, the designations would give utilities within the respective regions the opportunity to appeal to the federal government that power lines or plants are needed, if they are denied permission from state regulatory agencies to build.
For example, if the Department of Energy were to designate a Southwest Area National Corridor that covers Southern California, western Arizona and southern Nevada, SDG&E would in essence get a backup plan for its proposed $1.3 billion Sunrise Powerlink project.
The power company proposes to string 500- and 230-kilovolt wires from metal towers up to 150 feet tall along a meandering 150-mile course through the mountain and desert backcountry of San Diego and Imperial counties. The wires would cross Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, as well as the communities of Ranchita, Santa Ysabel, Ramona and Rancho Penasquitos.
The California Public Utilities Commission is studying the project and is scheduled to decide whether to grant permission for it in January 2008. If the commission were to decide that the project is not needed, SDG&E would have the option of asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to step in and take a fresh look at the project.
Utility officials welcomed the Department of Energy proposal.
“The federal government has a stake in this issue,” said power company spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan. “The reliability of transmission in Southern California is not just a neighborhood issue or a regional issue, but one of national concern.”
Donovan said the proposed designation underscores the primary point the utility has been making for months, that the region needs another major transmission line to bring electricity to a growing metropolis.
Project opponents have decried the idea of the federal government stepping in and taking over a process that historically has been handled by the states, a product of the 2005 Energy Policy Act approved by the formerly Republican-dominated Congress. With Democrats now in control, however, opponents said they are less concerned that the federal energy commission would actually overrule a state agency.
“There’s no political muscle behind this,” said Bill Powers, a San Diego engineer and activist who strongly opposes Sunrise Powerlink. “This was a bad idea that could have been shoved down our throats because they (the Bush administration) had all the cards. They don’t have all the cards anymore.”
Another opponent, San Diego consumer watchdog Michael Shames, said the national corridor designation may have no effect.
“SDG&E will use it as a threat against the CPUC, as if it were holding a gun against the head of the commission,” Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, said by email.
But, he said, the utility wouldn’t be able to invoke the federal review option anytime soon. And Shames said the new Congress could wind up repealing the controversial section of the 2005 law that gave rise to the option, leaving the utility without “any bullets in the gun.”
Donovan said it was too early to say whether the utility will ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to intervene, if it does not receive a favorable decision from the California commission.
“Our responsibility is to make sure that we can continue to meet our customers’ needs,” she said. “We also have the responsibility to use the federal process, since it is there, if it is necessary.”
The Department of Energy proposal follows an August 2006 federal report that said heavily populated Southern California and the Northeast were the nation’s most constrained electric corridors, and were in danger of extensive future blackouts because of a lack of power lines and plants.
The Southwest corridor takes in the metropolitan areas of San Diego County, Riverside County, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Frank Wolak, a Stanford University economics professor who serves on an independent panel that monitors the electricity market for the California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s power grid, said there is a need for more cables to move electricity from new power plants in Arizona to Southern California.
And Donovan said there is a need for more thick wires to plug San Diego County into a developing renewable energy center of solar and geothermal power in the Salton Sea area.
By Dave Downey
27 April 2007
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding