When it unveiled its Sunrise Powerlink project three years ago, San Diego County’s electric utility warned that rolling blackouts like those that swept California during the 2000-01 electricity crisis could return to the region in 2010 without the new power line.
Now, because of state delays in evaluating the $1.5 billion project, that high-voltage transmission line —- even if it is eventually approved —- won’t be available to help meet the county’s peak summer demand for electricity in either 2010 or 2011, utility officials say.
So are outages just around the corner?
Not necessarily, said Mike Niggli, chief operating officer for San Diego Gas & Electric Co., in a telephone interview last month.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep the lights on,” Niggli said.
Niggli insisted the utility did not exaggerate the blackout threat when it began making a case to the public and to state regulators in 2005 for building a power line. Back then, company officials said there was a significant danger that the region would fall short of electricity as early as 2010.
That’s still true, Niggli said. It’s just that, as a result of the delays, SDG&E is looking elsewhere to fill the gap.
For example, Niggli said, the utility recently sought approval from the state to build a small but potentially crucial 47-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant just southwest of Miramar Marine Corps Air Station that could be called upon during heat waves.
The plant is expected to be ready by 2010, to help make sure there is enough power to keep air conditioners humming.
To place that amount of electricity in perspective, county residents and businesses use more than 4,000 megawatts on hot summer days.
Project opponents said last month the fact that the San Diego utility is finding other ways to fill the gap suggests the company exaggerated the blackout threat.
“This whole idea of the lights going out in 2010 is just not going to happen,” said Michael Shames, executive director for the San Diego advocacy group Utility Consumers’ Action Network. “It’s patently absurd and there is absolutely no support for it. They have been using scare tactics.”
Niggli denied that the company exaggerated claims in a bid to build a stronger case for Sunrise Powerlink.
Utility officials say Sunrise is needed to meet the electricity needs of a growing population and to comply with a state mandate to deliver 20 percent of its power from green sources next decade. San Diego Gas & Electric serves about 3.5 million people in San Diego County and southern Orange County.
With a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, Sunrise could supply about 20 percent of the power used on the hottest summer days. And, utility officials say, it would plug its customers into the developing sun, wind and geothermal power in the desert.
They also have said that the line’s presence would avert the potential for a repeat of the 2000-01 blackouts.
Jim Avery, the company’s vice president of electric, painted a picture of the need for the project in a guest column published in the North County Times in March 2006.
“In less than four years, energy demand will exceed the amount of power we can generate locally and import through the existing power grid,” Avery wrote. “Put simply, without new energy infrastructure soon, San Diego could again face the threat of blackouts.”
Debates and delays
Sunrise Powerlink is a 150-mile-long transmission line that the company wants to string between El Centro in Imperial County and Carmel Valley on the coast.
The project consists of 90 miles of 500-kilovolt wires and 60 miles of 230-kilovolt wires. For most of the distance, the wires would hang from metal poles as tall as 160 feet. For about 10 miles, the wires would be buried underground.
The utility’s high-wire act would pass through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park as well as the communities of Ranchita, Warner Springs, Santa Ysabel, Ramona and Rancho Penasquitos.
The project has engendered tremendous opposition from environmentalists and park visitors, as well as from residents of the communities in its path. It has broad support in the business community, where leaders maintain the line’s power will be crucial to the continued health of San Diego County’s $168 billion economy.
The project is being evaluated by the California Public Utilities Commission. Under an original schedule, the commission was expected to render a decision on Sunrise’s fate in January of this year. But as a result of two delays totaling 10 months, a decision now won’t come until November at the earliest.
While the project has been debated and delayed, the region has been shattering electricity-use records.
During an extended heat wave in July 2006, San Diego Gas & Electric customers set a record by using 4,163 megawatts, then shattered that mark in reaching a high of 4,502 megawatts —- in the same week.
The region set a record again in September 2007 when the power load hit 4,636 megawatts, said Jennifer Briscoe, a company spokeswoman.
Company officials are anticipating still more records to fall this summer. And the region is well on the way to setting a new record, if June is any indication.
Niggli said the load already has topped 4,100 megawatts not once, but twice, in a month that historically is characterized by relatively mild weather.
Briscoe said the company’s long-term forecast anticipates the region will hit a peak of 5,141 megawatts in 2010.
The South Bay factor
Niggli said the utility had been counting on the power line to help meet that 2010 forecast, while easing the impact of the scheduled retirement of the 700-megawatt South Bay Power Plant in Chula Vista at the end of the decade.
He said it was unclear how much longer South Bay can remain in service, given Chula Vista’s plans to use the property in a waterfront redevelopment project.
However, Robert Sparks, a grid-planning engineer for the California Independent System Operator, the agency that operates the state’s power grid, stated in a recent report to the utilities commission that the South Bay plant won’t be turned off until Sunrise is turned on. Under the agency’s rules, the plant cannot be retired until the region has enough electricity to make up for it.
Sunrise is unlikely to be ready to pick up the slack from South Bay until fall 2011, Niggli said.
That expected online date is the result of two delays. The first occurred in July 2007, when state regulators expanded the scope of a draft environmental impact report.
The second was this month, when state officials ordered a revised draft to evaluate new information about a Mexico wind-power project and recalculates the economic benefits of Sunrise and its various alternatives.
The wind farm that factored into the latest delay is a project that a sister company of San Diego Gas & Electric —- Sempra Generation —- wants to build just across the border in the mountainous La Rumorosa area of Baja California.
Sempra Generation spokesman Art Larson said the area has the potential for 1,200 megawatts of wind power, and an initial phase of 162 to 187 megawatts could be ready as early as 2011.
Sempra Generation and the San Diego utility are subsidiaries of San Diego-based Sempra Energy. The San Diego company provides electricity and natural gas to the region’s consumers, and Sempra Generation builds power plants.
To move power from the wind farm to U.S. markets, Sempra Generation recently proposed constructing three miles of 500-kilovolt or 230-kilovolt wires to connect La Rumorosa to the California grid.
Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the utilities commission, said by e-mail it was that recent disclosure about a potential additional three-mile line that triggered the need for a revised Sunrise environmental report.
“New significant environmental impacts would result from the project,” Prosper said.
A promising wind farm
Sunrise opponents suggest La Rumorosa could eliminate the need for Sunrise because, at 1,200 megawatts, it has the potential to produce about as much power.
And they say the power could be delivered on the existing Southwest Powerlink transmission line that runs in the Interstate 8 corridor.
Gregg Fishman, a spokesman for the California Independent System Operator in Folsom, disputed that point, saying there is no room for moving the wind power along Southwest Powerlink.
“It’s full, basically,” Fishman said, saying a new transmission line would be required to deliver the energy to San Diego County.
Bill Powers, an activist and engineer from San Diego who has been fighting Sunrise, maintains there is another option: Ship the power west via an existing line in Baja California and north on wires that connect Tijuana with San Diego.
“You’ve got a lot of options here that don’t necessarily involve building any new transmission,” Powers said.
But Niggli, of San Diego Gas & Electric, said the utility doesn’t just want to deliver Baja wind power. It also wants to bring in electricity from solar farms in the Imperial Valley and underground geysers along the Salton Sea.
“The Imperial Valley is probably one of the most renewable-resource-rich areas in the country,” Niggli said. “And, of course, you have to have transmission lines to get that power out of Imperial Valley and into the load centers (the cities).”
Whatever the case, project opponents say, utility officials will figure out a way to meet the growing demand for power.
“I’m very confident that the lights are not going out,” said Shames, of the consumer group.
By Dave Downey
5 July 2008
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