Sunrise Powerlink media highlights

January 29, 2006

San Diego Union Tribune


Proposed power line generates lots of heat

SDG&E would put Sunrise towers through Anza-Borrego desert park

By Craig D. Rose

Like the proverbial line drawn in the sand, San Diego Gas & Electric's proposal to build a new electricity transmission line from Imperial County through the heart of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and across rural areas of North County has sparked an immediate and heated debate.

JOHN R. MCCUTCHEN / Union Tribune

SDG&E says ribbon markers across the Anza Borrego desert mark corridors in which it might site a proposed new electric transmission line.

The utility's initial application for the new line – called the Sunrise Powerlink and expected to cost up to $1.4 billion – prompted protest filings from environmental and consumer groups, as well as from competing projects and other power companies.

This is not to mention the opposition brewing in the small communities across the northern part of the county where sections of the line might be sited.

All this before the first “pre-hearing” in the approval process for the line, set for Tuesday afternoon in Ramona.

At that session, it's expected that a schedule for the review process will be established by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Adding heat to the debate over Sunrise is that it comes at a time when the state is emphasizing renewable energy development as never before, along with committing itself to reducing the gases that contribute to global warming.

To some critics, moreover, SDG&E's proposal to spend more than a billion dollars to hang a new transmission line on large towers across a pristine desert park seems anachronistic, like a throwback to an earlier time, and akin to investing in a gas-guzzler instead of a hybrid.

They envision a future with less investment in big transmission or large generating projects and more on such things as rooftop solar panels.

But SDG&E argues that the Sunrise project is a hybrid, so to speak, because the new line would allow San Diego to tap renewable sources of energy that are expected to be developed in eastern San Diego and Imperial counties. Those are expected to include wind, geothermal and solar energy projects.

SDG&E says the line is essential for it to meet the state-mandated goal of having 20 percent of its electric generating capacity in such renewables.

But first and foremost – in SDG&E's view – the new Sunrise transmission line is needed to ensure that the region has enough electricity in the next decade.

“As we've said before, it's not a matter of if  Sunrise is needed,” said Jim Avery, an SDG&E senior vice president, “it's when  the line is needed.”

JOHN R. MCCUTCHEN / Union Tribune

SDG&E is expected to propose upgrading at least part of the low-voltage power line now going through Anza Borrego Desert State Park into a major new transmission line requiring larger towers.

By 2015, SDG&E officials estimate the region will at most need about 5,900 megawatts of electric generating capacity. That includes capacity to meet demand and backup generation required by regulators to ensure sufficient power in the event of a transmission line failure or plant breakdown.

SDG&E now has about 4,750 megawatts of generating capacity and expects 550 megawatts to be added when the Palomar generating plant opens later this year, bringing the total to 5,300.

A speculative section of SDG&E's projection for the next 10 years involves what can be expected from the Encina Generating Station in Carlsbad and the South Bay Power Plant in Chula Vista.

The owners or operators of those facilities – NRG Energy and Duke Energy – say they want to renovate their plants to produce at least as much energy as they do now, with less pollution and at lower cost. The two plants now have the capability to produce about 1,800 megawatts, or enough to power 1.8 million homes.

In its planning for Sunrise, however, SDG&E projects that these facilities will produce just 1,000 megawatts. And if Encina or South Bay were retired rather than repowered, Sunrise might be needed even sooner to cover shortfalls, SDG&E said.

Sunrise would add about 1,000 megawatts of electricity import capability to the area, on top of the 2,500 megawatts San Diego is capable of receiving through two existing lines. SDG&E said an additional benefit of the new line is that it would provide access to cheaper electricity elsewhere in the Southwest.

The boost that Sunrise would provide is particularly valuable because it would eliminate the need to pay for reliability services that now cost local ratepayers $200 million annually, Avery said.

Those payments are for standby electric generation used in emergencies and to cover the cost of power line bottlenecks when too much power clogs the local transmission system.

In explaining what he says will be the cost-benefit of Sunrise, Avery notes that under California regulations, most utility customers statewide pay for transmission projects even if they are not in their service territory.

Under the existing formula, SDG&E customers – who make up about 10 percent of the state's total – would pay about 10 percent of the costs for Sunrise, with customers of Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric paying the balance.

“Reliability typically does not pay for itself, but in this case it does,” Avery said.

Bill Powers, chairman of the Border Power Plant Working Group, which monitors energy development in this region, calls that kind of accounting a “shell game.”

“At some point, we all pay for these transmission projects,” said Powers, adding that SDG&E customers will pay a share of the costs for transmission projects now being proposed by the other utilities.

Powers said an unspoken motive for the Sunrise project is to open a new path for moving electricity produced by SDG&E's parent company, Sempra Energy, from plants it owns in Mexicali and western Arizona.

And Powers added that it's those plants that are responsible for much of the power line congestion that Avery says is costing local customers millions.

Powers also said it's possible to look very differently at SDG&E's future electricity prospects.

If Encina and South Bay were renovated, he said, and if a new partly built plant under construction by Calpine Corp. on Otay Mesa is completed, the region will have sufficient power for the next decade.

“Repowering of those plants, along with Otay and our import capacity of 2,500 megawatts, would give us nearly 5,900 megawatts and ensure reliability through 2015,” Powers said.

Duke Energy, which operates the South Bay Plant, also rejected SDG&E's contention that Sunrise would provide access to cheaper power in the region.

“Simply put, it seems counterintuitive to conclude that power from a gas-fired generation plant in Arizona and transported over a $1 billion transmission line to San Diego will be more economical” than power generated at a new plant within the region, Duke said in its filing.

Duke said it filed the protest because SDG&E has failed to consider less-expensive alternatives to building the power line.

Opponents also question whether Sunrise is a “green” project.

They note that a competing project, called the Green Path, is being proposed by the Imperial Irrigation District, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Citizens Energy – a company headed by Joseph Kennedy II, a former congressman and son of Robert Kennedy.

It would tap similar renewable resources at a fraction of the expected cost for Sunrise, perhaps just 25 percent. And the Green Path could allow SDG&E to import renewably generated electricity to its service territory, via a route that would move the power north of Anza Borrego, west to the coast above San Diego County and then down into the local area.

Though SDG&E in the past said it needed Sunrise to meet the state-mandated target of 20 percent renewables, the utility more recently acknowledged that it could satisfy the requirment if power from the renewable desert projects with which it has contracts is transported on the Green Path.

But SDG&E says this route could raise costs of that electricity.

Kennedy said the region faces a choice between Green Path and the Sunrise Powerlink.

“Both projects do not make sense,” he said. “It's one or the other.”

But the Green Path competes only with a key component of Sunrise, namely an east-west transmission line piece within Imperial County that would bring electricity near the eastern edge of the Anza Borrego park. It's unclear what value this east-west power line would have other than to connect with another line cutting across Anza Borrego toward San Diego.

So it's more accurate to say that Citizens is both competing with and dependent on the Sunrise project.

Kennedy said his company's participation would have an important advantage for low-income families. Because Citizens is a nonprofit corporation, it has made a commitment to put profits generated from its portion of the new transmission line into low-income energy assistance for area residents, he said.

That could mean up to $2 million annually for San Diego County residents, according to Citizens.

Kennedy has discussed the idea of coordinating the Green Path with SDG&E's needs for renewables. Those talks haven't been productive but they continue, the Masschusetts company said.

Michael Shames, executive director of San Diego's Utility Consumers' Action Network, says he's still studying the project. But Shames said Sempra's first filing with regulators should be rejected as inadequate and he is convinced it would not save money for local utility customers.

“There will be no savings. We're putting a billion in just to get the power here,” he said. “You could build two power plants that would produce more than this link will bring in.”

Shames also said he doubts that a strong case can be made that Sunrise will provide greater electric reliability than developing power sources locally.

“There is nothing more reliable than locating the power source in the area that it will be serving,” he said, noting that long power lines are susceptible to many factors that can create outages.

Beyond the difficulty of selling this project to regulators and the public, SDG&E has chosen to break new ground in the procedural process.

Instead of proposing a specific route for the line to the California Public Utilities Commission, SDG&E has identified only broad corridors for the project, saying it will file a precise route and preferred alternative with state regulators by March.

Avery says this approach allows for greater community involvement in the route selection. The need for greater public input was driven home after the utility failed to win approval for a transmission line proposal in North County a few years ago, he said.

“On the Valley-Rainbow project, we said we'd build it from here to here as cheaply as we could and we (upset) a lot of people,” Avery said.

Critics say splitting the application process in the way SDG&E suggests is an unprecedented break with PUC procedure and could leave regulators in the position of giving approval to a line whose route is unknown.

The Sierra Club, which joined with the Center for Biological Diversity in filing a protest to the project, also says SDG&E's approach precludes fully considering the line's environmental impact.

How can you assess the impact of a project if SDG&E won't say where it's going, asked Kelly Fuller, who speaks for the local Sierra Club on the Sunrise project. She also said SDG&E's approach would diminish community input, not increase it.

“If SDG&E has its way, the public won't be able to comment on where the line is actually going until it is too far along in the PUC process,” Fuller said.

The Sierra Club also argues that the utility has not fully explored the development of renewable energy projects within the urban core of its service territory.

“And why spoil the beauty of the backcountry when you haven't fully explored alternatives,” Fuller said.

Powers believes SDG&E has pretty much decided where the line is going, noting the white-ribbon markers the utility has placed along a possible route in the desert and backcountry.

SDG&E says the white ribbons indicate “macro corridors” that have been presented to the public. Community feedback is playing a role in selecting a route for the Sunrise Powerlink, the company insists.

But Avery added that it has already been determined that the line would have to pass through the Anza-Borrego park.

Time may be important in the approval process.

In its filing to the utility commission, UCAN said the PUC's acceptance of SDG&E's initial application for the project could trigger a schedule that would, for the first time, allow federal regulators to approve a new transmission line.

Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can intervene in permitting these projects if state regulators fail to act on proposals within a year. The siting of transmission lines had been exclusively a state matter until the act was passed.

In the local area, SDG&E still has much work to do to convince residents that the line is necessary.

Tim Stanton of Ramona was unconvinced by a recent open house on the project in his community.

“I don't think SDG&E is doing enough with renewables,” Stanton said. “And you see a lack of trust about them telling us this is for our own good. It may be good for their shareholders.”