Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008 | San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposed $1.2 billion Sunrise Powerlink will not be built through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

The California Public Utilities Commission, the state regulatory agency that decides whether the power line should be built or not, issued draft rulings Friday that give the five-member commission two options to consider when deciding the Sunrise Powerlink’s fate in December: Don’t build it at all, or build it around the park — on the condition that SDG&E guarantee it delivers renewable energy to San Diego.

Without that condition, the power line brings no assurances that it will alleviate climate change, Commissioner Dian Grueneich wrote in her proposed decision. In fact, she said its construction may do more to encourage development of coal-fired power plants throughout the Southwest — not renewable energy, as SDG&E has contended for three years.

The other draft decision, written by Jean Vieth, a CPUC administrative law judge, says that the project doesn’t make economic sense for ratepayers, who would foot its cost, and isn’t needed to tap into renewable energy. Vieth recommends that the commission reject it altogether.

The Public Utilities Commission’s five commissioners have the ultimate say in California about whether and where the Sunrise Powerlink gets built. When they meet Dec. 4, the commission can vote on either of the two proposed decisions, which each run more than 250 pages. It can also consider any decision proposed by the four other commissioners. (Rejecting the line would allow SDG&E to appeal to federal energy regulators.)

The proposals, which culminate a three-year evaluation of the power line proposal, lay bare just how much the commission believes SDG&E hyped its case for building the line, overstating its benefits and understating its environmental damage. SDG&E said the line was needed to meet renewable energy goals by 2010; would save customers billions over its life; and would guarantee that San Diego’s lights stay on.

The rulings say that those assertions were either not true or were overstated.

Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a ratepayer advocate and Sunrise opponent, called the decisions a “big defeat” for SDG&E and said it would be difficult for the company to meet the proposed renewable energy condition Grueneich outlined.

“[Grueneich] essentially pulled back the curtains, looked behind the smoke and mirrors and she and the judge concluded that there was no wizard,” Shames said. “It was just a salesman, a lowly salesman, peddling an untenable project.”

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.

The rulings do offer some encouragement to SDG&E, saying the line could help promote development of renewable energy in Imperial County. Grueneich wrote that its construction would only make sense once the state adopts regulations requiring utilities to get a third of their power from green sources — and if SDG&E agrees to use the line specifically to deliver that green power to San Diego.

She estimated that building the line could facilitate development of more than 2,800 megawatts of renewable energy in Imperial County — about four times as much electricity as can be produced by the South Bay Power Plant in Chula Vista.

In a written statement, Michael Niggli, SDG&E’s chief operating officer, welcomed Grueneich’s decision as a significant project milestone — and didn’t mention the other decision, which recommended jettisoning Sunrise.

“We are pleased the decision sponsored by Commissioner Grueneich supports the Sunrise Powerlink and agrees the line is needed to import the renewable energy supplies we need to meet California’s greenhouse gas emission reduction and renewable energy goals,” Niggli said. “[W]e are hopeful the full Commission also will support the Sunrise Powerlink.”

The CPUC’s draft rulings highlight several significant misrepresentations that SDG&E made in making its case for the line.

  • SDG&E originally said the new line would tap into so much renewable energy that it would eliminate a half-million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. But the CPUC rulings say the line is likely to facilitate coal-fired power plant development outside the state. Sunrise may not displace enough emissions over 40 years even to offset the greenhouse gases that would be created during the line’s construction.
  • SDG&E had long argued that the line would save money for its customers — initially estimating savings at nearly $500 million annually. That assumption was based on an estimate that power development companies would build some 12,000 megawatts of coal-fired power plants in the Southwest (about 40 power plants the size of the South Bay Power Plant). Both proposed decisions say SDG&E’s assumption “makes no sense in today’s world,” given a nation-wide shift away from coal because of its impact on global warming. SDG&E has since cut its savings estimates.
  • Opponents contended that SDG&E mischaracterized the project’s impacts on the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep population in Anza-Borrego. The CPUC’s decisions say opponents were right. SDG&E’s original proposed route, which would have crossed through the park, threatened to split the United States’ entire bighorn sheep population into two separate populations — potentially decreasing genetic diversity and increasing the risk of extinction.

Both draft rulings say that all routes traversing Anza-Borrego are unacceptable. Grueneich’s proposed decision points instead to a 123-mile southern route, which 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 fight over the project will continue with SDG&E and project opponents making oral arguments to the CPUC Nov. 7 in San Francisco.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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