January 25, 2006
North County Times

Residents question need for new transmission line

RAMONA ---- A group of concerned residents and environmentalists peppered San Diego Gas & Electric Co. officials with questions Wednesday during a public meeting to discuss the company's proposal to build a 120-mile-long high voltage transmission line from the Imperial Valley to North County.

After listening to arguments from both sides of the issue ---- an SDG&E spokesman presenting the benefits of the proposal and an activist engineer talking about its shortcomings ---- residents raised concerns and asked questions about everything from the effects the lines would have on people's health to what they would do to property values.
One of the last people to raise her hand was Diane Conklin, whose Ramona home backs up onto one of the potential routes for the lines.

"If you're against this project stand up," Conklin said.

In response, almost everyone in the audience of about 150 people rose to their feet.

In December, SDG&E filed its application for the project with the California Public Utilities Commission. However, much to the frustration of some environmentalists and consumer advocacy groups, the company asked the commission to waive a requirement that it submit an initial environmental impact statement with its application. It also asked the commission to allow it to evaluate the need for the transmission line separately from its evaluation of a specific route.

Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club filed a motion with the utilities commission, objecting to the project because of what they claimed were the company's efforts to sidestep normal commission procedures.

At Tuesday's meeting, activist and engineer Bill Powers said he believes SDG&E officials had an ulterior motive in splitting their application and asking the commission to first evaluate the need for the project. By waiting to reveal the project's likely route, the company hopes to reduce the impact of community protests against the lines until it's too late, he said.

"Until you tell people where the route is going, the opposition is diffused," Powers said. If the commission were to say, 'absolutely it is needed,' that's 90 percent of the ball game."

SDG&E spokesman Scott Crider disagreed with Powers, saying that the company will announce its preferred route before the commission makes its decision on whether there is a need for the project.

"The split process provides even more opportunity for the public to get involved," Crider said.

Company officials have defended the transmission lines, saying San Diego County must prepare to meet the region's future needs for reliable electricity supplies. They have also touted their plans to use the lines to deliver so called "green" energy to the county ---- energy that would be supplied in large part by a solar-power plant that is planned for construction in the Imperial Valley.

The 1,000-megawatt lines would be strung on towers 160 feet high and covering a 200-foot-wide swath. A megawatt is enough electricity to supply the energy needs of 650 households each day.

While no decision has yet been made on a specific route for the lines, the potential pathways run in a pitchfork array from the Imperial Valley, through large portions of Anza Borrego Desert State Park and connect into one larger unit just east of Julian.

After converging, the lines could then stretch southwest, possibly through Ramona, Santa Ysabel and Poway ---- just south of Highway 67 ---- into Mira Mesa and Rancho Penasquitos.

Critics such as the Center for Biological Diversity have accused the company of intending to pull a bait-and-switch, saying that in reality, the company plans to use the lines to transmit electricity from gas-fueled 500-megawatt plant owned by its parent company Sempra Energy in Mexico, just south of Calexico.

SDG&E officials have said that alternative energy will be transmitted on the lines. But when pressed on whether the lines could be used to transmit energy from the Mexican plant, as well, they said last week that those kinds of decisions ultimately rest with the California Independent System Operator, not SDG&E.

Before Tuesday's meeting Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club in San Diego said county residents should be asking themselves who the lines are really for.

"Are they to supply power to San Diego or is it really about getting Mexican power to Los Angeles?" asked Sierra Club spokeswoman Kelly Fuller. "If that is the case, why should San Diegans be asked to pay for any of it?"

In recent months, four different groups have filed protests against the project with the commission, accusing the company of trying to sidestep commission procedure and questioning SDG&E's motives for asking the commission to first evaluate the need for the project.

Contact staff writer William Finn Bennett at (760) 740-5426, or wbennett@nctimes.com. To comment, go to www.nctimes.com.