The ground war over San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposed Sunrise Powerlink entered a new phase yesterday, as state utility regulators convened the first in a series of public hearings on the high-voltage transmission line.
The hearings are intended to help the California Public Utilities Commission decide the fate of the 150-mile project that SDG&E estimates will cost $1.3 billion. The five-member PUC could decide by late summer.
SDG&E says the line will carry to San Diego electricity that would be generated by new solar power plants and geothermal facilities near the Salton Sea.
Proponents told PUC officials at the first hearing, held at the County Administration Building in downtown San Diego, that the 500 kilovolt line is needed to ensure power reliability. They said it also will enable SDG&E to meet a state mandate requiring that renewable energy sources provide 20 percent of the utility’s power.
“We must stop debating and start building the infrastructure that is needed to preserve our economy and our way of life here in San Diego,” San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond told PUC officials. “Large-scale solar and geothermal projects are out there just waiting to be tapped into.”
Opponents countered that the Sunrise Powerlink is unnecessary, that sources of renewable energy can be developed within San Diego County and that Anza Borrego Desert State Park would be desecrated by SDG&E’s plans to erect 130-foot high towers along much of state Route 78.
“We citizens and residents should not be expected to have to fight over and over and over again for land that has been set aside for a state park,” Virginia McIlwain of San Diego told PUC officials. “The Sunrise Powerlink is not the most effective and least costly. It is simply the most profitable for SDG&E.”
A litany of environmental problems posed by the project were detailed last fall in a draft environmental report that runs more than 7,500 pages.
The utility’s preferred route calls for erecting 246 towers from El Centro through the Anza Borrego Desert, with an overall permanent habitat loss of almost 500 acres. The planned route would require redesignating 50 acres of state wilderness areas, and the study said it would harm a variety of animals, rare birds, reptiles and insects such as the endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly.
Opponents also questioned whether SDG&E really intends to connect the Sunrise Powerlink to renewable energy plants, or if the line would be used to link to natural gas power plants in Mexico.
“The Sunrise Powerlink is not about renewables, but about the globalization of energy, about getting liquified natural gas into Ensenada and providing it to dirtier power plants in Mexico where labor is cheaper,” said Valerie Filippo of the San Diego Sierra Club.
Michael Niggli, SDG&E’s chief operating officer, has denied such allegations, saying the company’s natural gas power plants in Mexico are already connected to the grid, and the company has no plans to build any more.
Opponents endorsed the development of alternative power plants within the San Diego region, an alternative to Sunrise that ranked highest in the PUC’s draft environmental report. But some Sunrise proponents challenged whether enough electricity can be generated under that scenario.
Jonathan Bradhurst of the Westfield Group, for example, said it plans a $1 billion renovation of University Towne Center mall, which would include 10 acres of rooftop solar power. That would generate enough electricity to power 2,000 homes in San Diego, he said.
As significant as that might seem, Bradhurst said, “it’s a drop in the bucket when you look at the power demands of the San Diego region.”
The hearing yesterday afternoon drew a crowd of more than 150 proponents and opponents to the County Board of Supervisors’ chamber. A second hearing was held last night in Pine Valley in East County. Additional hearings are planned today in Borrego Springs and Ramona, and tomorrow in Julian.
By Bruce V. Bigelow
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
26 February 2008
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