Friday, Dec. 19, 2008 | SAN FRANCISCO — With approval from state utility regulators now in hand, San Diego Gas & Electric plans to begin building its $1.9 billion transmission line to the desert sometime early in 2010, with completion set for the summer of 2012.

Flush with the victory of a 4-1 vote approving the Sunrise Powerlink project after years of regulatory wrangling, Michael Niggli, SDG&E’s chief operating officer, yesterday declared: “The era of renewable energy starts now.”

That may be the case. But before the $1.9 billion, 123-mile long transmission line carries its first cleanly generated electron, it has already generated a very energetic and remarkable opposition movement — one that could prove as important to San Diego’s energy future as the line itself.

It’s a diverse coalition including urban environmentalists and backcountry hunters, suburban residents and backcountry lovers, artists and engineers, consumer activists and community leaders. It’s a movement that’s already won a victory by forcing the Sunrise out of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, to the southern route below the park approved yesterday by the commission.

The coalition blends new groups like Citizens United for Sensible Power or the Mussey Grade Road Alliance, with older organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Utility Consumers’ Action Network.

And it’s a coalition now determined to take its fight against Sunrise to the courts, where the project’s opponents will argue that the California Public Utility Commission ignored the factual record established by the commission’s own process. The PUC’s record — which approaches 30,000 pages in this case, includes a finding that a full handful of projects would be better for the environment than the Sunrise proposal.

Opponents also note that the administrative judges overseeing the Sunrise case — who attended every hearing — recommended rejection of the project, without condition.

So, to many of those who threw their all into hearings, testimony, fact finding and fundraising to participate in the PUC’s review of Sunrise, the PUC vote remains unacceptable, even if anticipated.

“I expected the vote to go this way,” said Denis Trafecanty, the chief financial officer of a mid-size company by day and a key fundraiser, as well as marathon runner, for the anti-Sunrise coalition in his off hours.

“But we’ve stockpiled evidence and we stockpiled funds for a court fight,” said Trafecanty. “I wouldn’t suggest they buy the shovels for Sunrise just yet.”

Perhaps most important, the coalition of Sunrise opponents has raised issues that could reverberate nationally as the Obama administration unveils plans for big infrastructure spending and an overhaul of the nation’s energy grid.

In the course of resisting the Sunrise Powerlink, the coalition studied, argued, and even sang their way to a higher level of understanding about arcane matters of electric transmission. What started as a movement heavily laden with NIMBYISM — “just don’t build that transmission line in my backyard” — has evolved, to significant degree, into a movement skeptical of most big transmission projects.

The conclusion underlying this skepticism is that big transmission projects can be expensive tickets to what is already in our urban backyards, namely, renewable energy resources including solar and wind.

“Why spend $2 billion just getting to the solar resources of the desert when we have miles of rooftops available for photovoltaic (solar electric) development right in our cities, where transmission is already available,” says Bill Powers, an engineer whose study of urban solar possibilities has provided depth to the Sunrise opposition movement.

Powers and others argue that advances in the efficiency of photovoltaic systems — which convert sunlight to electricity — are evolving to the point where there may be little advantage to big utility scale solar projects in the desert, compared with tapping large rooftops within the urban core.

This doesn’t mean they oppose all transmission projects. But the Sunrise regulatory process worked to the extent that many have become educated. Expect far tougher and sophisticated scrutiny of the emerging plans for further wind energy development in East County as a result of the Sunrise fight.

In one respect, yesterday’s action by the utilities flew in the face of the growing recognition of a need for greater regulation of big companies. In accepting a proposal from PUC President Michael Peevey to approve Sunrise without significant guarantees it be used primarily for renewable energy, the commission rejected a rival proposal from Commissioner Dian Grueneich that would have approved the project with enforceable requirements that the line carry cleanly generated electricity.

Grueneich wanted the requirements to address fears that SDG&E’s may use Sunrise to move “dirty energy” — generated from its fossil fuel projects — from infrastructure in Mexico.

In response, SDG&E’s chief executive officer repeated yesterday that she was committed to using the transmission line for clean renewable energy. But Reed said the utility would not agree to binding commitments, given the uncertainty of the market for green power and regulations.

But it was exactly that uncertainty that had prompted Grueneich to insist on a guarantee that Sunrise will carry a substantial amount of renewably generated power: “I’m not willing to risk $2 billion of ratepayer money to the invisible hand of the market.”

Michael Shames, executive director of UCAN, noted the irony, as he described it, of the PUC’s action in the wake of the nation’s economic meltdown, when much of the crisis is blamed on the failure to adequately regulate.

“We are seeing the failures of deregulation,” said Shames.

Now, he and other Sunrise opponents will head to court. They’ll meet early next month to begin mapping their legal strategy.

Shames acknowledged that getting the courts to overturn PUC decisions has proven very difficult in the past. But bolstered by the support of the anti-Sunrise coalition and what he argues was the disregard of the PUC commissioners to their own factual record, Shames said the opponents have a higher probability of success.

In addition, he said: “I think this coalition will hold together.”

Craig Rose is a former and once again journalist who spent one year as energy advisor to San Diego’s City Attorney. The city attorney earlier this year filed suit against SDG&E for allegedly causing the wildfires of 2007.

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