Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008 | For nearly three years, whenever San Diego Gas & Electric talked about the Sunrise Powerlink’s proposed path through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the company and its representatives were adamant: Building the power line through the park was unavoidable.

To tap into undeveloped renewable energy sources in Imperial County, the company said it had no other choice but to build through Anza-Borrego — a decision that elicited broad protests from environmentalists and park supporters.

“I will assure you that if there was any way not to build this through the park, we would not build it through the park,” Donald Felsinger, the CEO of Sempra Energy, SDG&E’s parent, said in a 2007 interview. “There’s no other way to get here.”

Turns out, there is.

With a final decision nearing about whether the line will be built, the last step in a years-long permitting process, SDG&E has announced that it would accept a different alignment for the proposed $1.2 billion, 150-mile power line project that would route it south of Anza-Borrego.

The announcement all but eliminates any chance that the high-voltage power line’s 120-foot-tall steel poles would be built through Anza-Borrego, California’s largest state park, and comes after a voluminous state-federal environmental review concluded that less damaging alternatives exist. Instead of running a northern route from Imperial County through the park and areas such as Julian, Santa Ysabel and Ramona, SDG&E pointed to a southern route as a newly viable option, despite having rejected it before.

The company said it has not completely abandoned the path through the park, but felt that it could still achieve its goals — increasing reliability and tapping renewable energy — if state regulators chose the southern route. A judge is expected to make a non-binding recommendation on the project before October’s end. The California Public Utilities Commission, the state regulator that approves new power line projects, is expected to make a final ruling before year’s end.

“In order to have a chance at this project being selected, we had to look at a buildable southern route that could get approval,” said Jennifer Briscoe, an SDG&E spokeswoman. “We believe the benefits of the project outweigh what route is selected.”

The 123-mile southern route would be 27 miles shorter than SDG&E’s preferred path and still encourage development of renewable energy sources while causing less harm, according to the conclusions of a joint state-federal environmental impact report conducted by the federal Bureau of Land Management and CPUC.

It would parallel the existing Southwest Power Link, the region’s other major high-voltage transmission line, for 36 miles in Imperial County and far eastern San Diego County, turn north near the In-Ko-Pah mountain range, avoid the Campo Indian Reservation, turn south and loop around the Hauser Wilderness, sweeping north again to follow Interstate 8.

The project, introduced in 2005, has been one of the county’s most controversial land-use proposals, in part attracting opposition because of its path through Anza-Borrego, but not solely. While all of the power line’s potential paths have environmental impacts, the route through the park could disturb and possibly kill populations of the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep, mar scenic vistas and create a constant crackling noise in two otherwise quiet park campgrounds.

Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a ratepayer advocate and Sunrise opponent, said SDG&E wasn’t lying while it spent years contending that it had to cross the park. But the company was “clever,” he said, “understanding that a regulatory process is also a negotiation process.”

Shames said SDG&E’s acknowledgment that the line doesn’t have to be built through Anza-Borrego shifts the debate about the Sunrise Powerlink. Before, the argument was about whether other alignments were less damaging. Now, he said, it’s about the southern route’s viability compared to building local power plants.

“We’re no longer arguing about what’s the better route,” Shames said. “We’re arguing about whether the southern route is optimal.”

Shames said he does not believe the CPUC will discard the Sunrise Powerlink altogether, knowing that SDG&E could appeal a rejection to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has newly granted power to usurp state regulators for projects deemed critical to national energy needs. But the state group could approve the project with conditions, Shames said, such as requiring renewable-energy projects to first be operating.

SDG&E long argued that the southern route wasn’t viable because the utility did not want to build the Sunrise Powerlink, its second major transmission line, alongside the Southwest Power Link, its first and only high-voltage line — aiming to decrease the risk that fire would knock both out simultaneously.

But the environmental impact report contradicted SDG&E. The Sunrise Powerlink would be collocated with the Southwest Power Link only along a 36-mile stretch of desert that presents a low fire risk, the study said. Elsewhere, reliability goals “with respect to fire risk” could still be met, the report said.

Briscoe, the SDG&E spokeswoman, said the company decided it could support the southern route after it was designed around tribal land in eastern San Diego. The first environmental report called for the line to be built through the Campo Indian Reservation. “That wasn’t a route that could have been supported,” Briscoe said.

Diana Lindsay, vice president of environmental affairs for the Anza-Borrego Foundation and Institute, a nonprofit park advocate, said she is grateful the project will likely avoid crossing the park. The southern route does run through 2,000 acres owned by The Nature Conservancy that are supposed to become part of the park, Lindsay said.

“We can live with that,” Lindsay said. “But we don’t want to see the center of the park destroyed. The impacts on it are tremendous.”

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