The state’s public utilities commission opened an intensive three weeks of public hearings Monday on San Diego Gas & Electric Co.’s controversial $1.3 billion proposal to build high-power lines across the county with five hours of testimony at the county administration center.
The company has been pushing for new lines, called the Sunrise Powerlink since 2005, saying they are needed to keep up with the county’s growing electrical demand, prevent the region from suffering summer blackouts and to bring state-mandated “green” solar- and wind-created electricity to the region.
Critics say the up-to 150-foot-tall power lines are not needed and that alternative projects could sustain the region. They also say the lines that would stretch from El Centro to San Diego County are profit-driven and would scar the Anza Borrego desert and backcountry San Diego County communities they would run through.
In Monday’s afternoon session, San Diego Gas & Electric officials, prodded by aggressive questions from a consumer watchdog group, said they could actually deliver some of the green energy on existing power lines without building the Sunrise Powerlink.
However, at a break in the meeting, company officials said those existing power lines could only carry a small portion of that green energy; that the powerlink was needed to deliver the 1,000 megawatts they expect to buy; and that they would prove that assertion in coming weeks of testimony.
The hearings could be crucial in the commission’s decision whether to approve the project. That decision is scheduled for January.
The commission is the state agency that regulates public utilities. The 16 days of meetings, which are being presided over by Administrative Law Judge Steven Weissman and utilities commissioner Dian Grueneich, will not take public testimony, but instead will focus on the testimony of “expert” groups.
Monday’s event began and ended with critics attacking the project.
Before the meeting, about 40 people who don’t want the power lines to run through their communities because they say it would destroy the backcountry’s beauty and create fire risks staged a protest, carrying signs with such slogans as, “Just because Sempra wants Sunrise doesn’t make it the right solution.” Sempra is San Diego Gas & Electric’s parent company.
The hearings ended, meanwhile, with San Diego Gas & Electric Vice President Jim Avery being cross-examined by consumer advocates about whether ratepayers would have to pay for the $1.3 billion project’s cost overruns, and whether the lines were really needed.
As it has in the past, San Diego Gas & Electric officials said that the powerlink is the best way make sure the region has enough electricity to sustain its still-growing 3 million population.
The project would stretch 500 kilovolt lines on steel towers up to 150 feet high from Imperial Valley through Anza-Borrego State Park, Ranchita, Santa Ysabel, Ramona, Rancho Penasquitos and Carmel Valley.
Mike Nigley, chief operating officer for Sempra Energy Utilities —- San Diego Gas & Electric’s parent company —- said that the region was at an energy crossroads and should approve the powerlink. He said San Diego’s population and economy had just one 500 kilovolt transmission line, while Phoenix had seven.
But critics repeated claims that the powerlink was unnecessary and simply a profit-grab by Sempra and San Diego Gas & Electric that would scar the environment and local communities.
Michael Shames of San Diego’s Utility Consumers Action Network said he believed San Diego Gas & Electric could deliver most of the renewable energy it wants on its existing power lines.
“This commission,” Shames said, “is really going to have to grapple with the question, ‘Is this transmission line truly an essential, life-blood artery for the economy? Or is it really just a monument to greed that will be standing through the desert and through the backcountry for generations?'”
Other groups that testified Monday included the California Independent System Operator, the commission’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates; the Imperial Irrigation District; the state parks foundation; the California Farm Bureau; the Center for Biological Diversity; Ramona’s Mussey Grade Road Alliance and Rancho Penasquitos Concerned Citizens.
Before the meeting, protesters said they were rallying in the hope of spreading opposition to the project.
Warner Springs resident Michael Pinto said that Sempra —- which paid $377 million to settle California and Nevada lawsuits that accused it of conspiring to limit power supplies and drive up costs in California’s 2001 energy crisis —- was creating a new crisis to justify the new power lines.
“They’re trying to create a false sense of need and urgency,” he said. “They’re just doing it all over again, and saying to the citizens, ‘Hey, we’re in a crisis and we need to hurry up and bring in this long line of power.'”
But others said many support the project.
Greg Parks of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, representing the Community Alliance for the Sunrise Powerlink, said, “There are well over 50 elected officials, and about 50 to 60 business and labor organizations lined up behind this project. We think it’s really important to have clean, reliable and affordable energy in this region.”
The hearings continue today at the county administration center at 10 a.m.
By: Gig Conaughton – Staff Writer
10 July 2007
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