April 8, 2006

North County Times

CPUC won't rule on need for Sunrise first

A state regulatory agency Friday denied San Diego Gas & Electric Co.'s unprecedented request to split into two parts its application to build a $1.4 billion, 120-mile-long transmission line from Imperial County to Carmel Valley.

Upon filing its application with the California Public Utilities Commission in December, SDG&E asked the agency to first evaluate the need for the electricity the Sunrise Powerlink project would deliver independently of any impacts the project might cause, then later examine the route and how it would affect backcountry towns and the environment.

After both sides waited months for a decision, the commission announced Friday it was denying the utility's request on grounds the idea of breaking up the project's evaluation into separate parts had become a moot point. In asking for split decisions, SDG&E was seeking a decision on need before it filed environmental documents. Now the utility intends to file those documents earlier, in July.

Moot or not, conservationists and backcountry residents immediately declared a first-round victory, while acknowledging they face a long battle to prevent the utility from stringing fat, buzzing wires from erector-setlike poles as tall as 160 feet.

"This means that the commission is supporting the position of the environmental groups and the communities who have claimed all along that the application was incomplete and would have subverted due process," said David Hogan, urban wildlands director for the Center for Biological Diversity in San Diego. "Environmental groups and communities will celebrate this as a first victory against this unnecessary project."

Donna Murdoch, a spokeswoman for the Ramona Alliance Against Sunrise Powerlink, said the community group was pleased.

"We feel that the need, route and environmental impact all need to be looked at together," Murdoch said. "That's been our stance from the beginning. So it's a good thing that the PUC will take a look at the entire package, as is required by their regulations."

The groups suggested an opposite ruling could have set a precedent that would have eroded environmental protections when other projects come up for review in the future.

An SDG&E official denied that the ruling was a defeat for the utility.

"We have always said that the focus was on the need for the project and that our goal was to get a decision from the commission by mid- to late 2007," said Stephanie Donovan, SDG&E spokeswoman. "We believe that that is still doable. So I would say that this is a win-win because we are still going to stay on track and move forward with the process."

According to the preferred route unveiled March 20 by SDG&E, the Sunrise project would run through parts of Ramona and the San Diego Country Estates, as well as a section of Rancho Penasquitos south of Highway 56. Neighborhood portions could run underground. The utility says it will refine the route by summer.

Sunrise would deliver 1,000 megawatts to San Diego County, one-fourth of the record total the region used one day last summer.

A megawatt is the standard measuring unit for electricity. Most days a megawatt is enough to keep the lights on in 750 to 1,000 homes, according to the California Independent System Operator, which oversees the state's power grid.