Dozens of community activists, public officials and environmentalists Thursday criticized a plan that sets the stage for the federal government to overrule state decisions on new power lines.
At the same time, several elected officials and business leaders supported giving the federal government power to solve Southern California’s electricity problems if the state fails to adequately address the challenge of keeping lights and air conditioners on.
San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, one of about 60 to testify at a hearing hosted by the U.S. Energy Department on a proposed national power corridor for Southern California, said that allowing a federal commission to overrule a state regulatory body is a bad idea.
“The Department of Energy should not steal energy transmission planning from the hands of California stakeholders,” Jacob said.
Aides for state Sens. Denise Moreno Ducheny and Christine Kehoe, both D-San Diego, stressed that California is more than capable of handling its own electricity challenges without Washington’s help.
“I see no need or justification for the federal government designating congestion corridors anywhere in the state,” an aide said during the hearing while reading a statement from Kehoe, chairwoman of the state Senate’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee.
As it stands now, all new high-voltage transmission lines in the state must win approval from the California Public Utility Commission.
However, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides a way for a utility to appeal an unfavorable state decision to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The appeals process applies to proposed power lines located within designated national-interest electric transmission corridors. The Energy Department is proposing to create just such a corridor out of seven Southern California counties – including San Diego – and parts of Arizona and Nevada.
If the so-called Southwest corridor is designated, possibly later this year, it would give San Diego Gas & Electric Co. a fallback strategy for building the Sunrise Powerlink, a transmission line that could cut through the relatively undisturbed Anza-Borrego State Park. The state is set to issue its decision on the $1.3 billion project early next year.
The Energy Department has proposed two national power corridors. The other one encompasses parts of eight states between Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Both regions are places where the lack of power plants or lines threatens to trigger blackouts on days when electricity use is high, said David Meyer, Energy Department senior policy adviser.
Meyer said the corridors would remain in place for 12 years, or until the threat is alleviated.
“The blackout risk is real,” he said, at the outset of the four-hour hearing.
Joe Panetta, president and chief executive officer for Biocom, said in a statement released Thursday that the potential for blackouts is a real concern for the region’s economy. It is of particular concern to the $8.5 billion life-science industry that employs 36,600 people in more than 500 companies, he said.
“Even a momentary power outage can cost companies who are developing life-saving drugs and devices,” Panetta said.
Gary Knight, president and chief executive officer for the San Diego North Economic Development Council, said that because of the concern for the economy, his organization supports a national corridor.
The council doesn’t want to circumvent the Public Utilities Commission’s extensive review of the Sunrise Powerlink, Knight said. But he said it is a good idea to have the option of inviting the federal government to take a fresh look at the problem if ongoing efforts don’t solve it.
Oceanside Councilman Jack Feller said he knows firsthand what it’s like to endure a blackout as a business owner. Feller recalled how a 2000 blackout destroyed food at the submarine sandwich shop he formerly owned in Oceanside.
“We can’t have that,” Feller said.
However, Ramona activist Diane Conklin, speaking for a group called Communities United for Sensible Power that represents neighborhoods from the desert to the ocean, suggested the power outage fear was exaggerated. She noted that market manipulation by energy companies was blamed for many rolling blackouts during the 2000-01 electricity crisis.
“Please don’t tell us about the lights going out,” Conklin said. “We know all about the lights going out – and who put them out.”
Conklin strongly opposes the Sunrise Powerlink line, which would run through Ramona and Rancho Penasquitos in addition to the state park.
“The line isn’t needed; neither is the corridor,” she said.
Bill Powers, an engineer and activist from San Diego who opposes the line, suggested a national corridor would amount to “little more than a federal bail-out program for private power developers who put their projects in the wrong place.”
Monica Argandona, desert program director for the California Wilderness Coalition in Riverside, said the proposed corridor should be narrowed substantially to avoid state and national parks, and wilderness areas.
“California’s last remaining wild places are not appropriate places for energy corridors,” Argandona said.
Jacob said the corridor, which would cover 82,000 square miles, is too large.
Marshall Whitenton, deputy director of the Energy Department’s Office of Electricity Delivery, said during a break that the corridor was drawn wide to encompass all locations where power lines or plants might be needed.
That point was underscored in the testimony of Randy Howard, assistant chief operating officer for Los Angeles, which supports the corridor plan. Howard said California’s largest city bought thousands of acres for a proposed geothermal (geyser energy) plant near the Salton Sea and wind turbines in the Tehachapi Mountains, but there are no transmission lines available to deliver electricity from those places.
Whitenton said public comment will be accepted through July 6. Some months later, his agency will decide whether to designate the proposed corridors or smaller versions of them, or none at all, he said, declining to predict when.
By Dave Downey
North County Times
17 may 2007
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