July 28, 2006

ISO Prepared to Support SDG&E Powerlink

By E.A. Barrera

The California Independent System Operator (ISO) has concluded there is a need for the 120-mile SDG&E Powerlink project and will recommend its development when they testify before the California Public Utilities Commission Board meeting next August 3 in Folsom, California. The proposed Powerlink would extend 120 miles from the Imperial Valley to the North County coast and cost over one billion dollars.

“We will run out of transmission by 2010 if nothing is done,” said Dariush Shirmohammadi, the ISO’s Director of Transmission Planning for the Southern Region. “We took a look at the economic benefits and the energy benefits and found the program is justified. It solves the reliability problem as to future energy production and helps keep a future energy crises in check.”

The proposed project would connect the existing Imperial Valley substation near El Centro to a new “central” substation located in a yet to be determined location within San Diego County. SDG&E plans to build two 230 kV lines connecting the Central substation to the existing Sycamore Canyon substation and one new 230 kV line between the Sycamore Canyon substation and the Peñasquitos substation. SDG&E has been seeking permission from the CPUC to gain approval of the project in principle, before a route has been established. SDG&E maintains that it is necessary to have the need for the project established before a specific route is developed. SDG&E has asked the CPUC to withhold the company’s preparation of a state mandated Environmental Impact Report until after it has determined the course of the power link.

“SDG&E has departed from the traditional practice used to site major transmission projects, whereby public comment from local communities and regional stakeholders is gathered after the applicant has selected the preferred and alternate route, and has completed preliminary engineering and environmental studies,” said SDG&E Senior Vice-president James Avery in their December 14 application for approval to the CPUC. “The need adjudication is often the most time-consuming part of the … process, and by starting now, SDG&E believes it is possible for the (CPUC) to first determine need for the project by the (third) quarter of 2006 and then approve the route for the line and ultimately decide this application by late Spring, 2007.”

According to SDG&E, a new solar-thermal site planned by Stirling Energy Systems and existing geothermal fields near the Salton Sea would be developed as “one of several new facilities to be built in Imperial Valley that will use the line to help deliver renewable power to more than 650,000 customers in the San Diego region.” The Stirling facility, would deliver “up to 900 megawatts (MW) of solar power” said SDG&E in an April 11, 2006 press release.

But opposition to the proposal has been strong. During a meeting in Kearney Mesa on July 24, a packed room of more than 100 people came out to speak with Shirmohammadi and representatives of SDG&E and the San Diego Regional Energy Office. At one point a member of the audience asked for a show of hands to indicate how many in the room were opposed to the project and more than three-quarters of the room raised their hands.

Paul Blackburn of the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club said SDG&E was being unrealistic about the ability to create so much energy from solar power in a reasonable amount of time. He was critical of the idea that a need be established before a route was proposed, saying that to do so would be to concede a valuable part of the public’s right to question a project under the California Environmental Quality Act of 1972. Under CEQA, a development project must undergo a full environmental study and public review process to determine if a proposed project will produce significant environmental and quality of life burdens to the land and residents of the community where the project is proposed.

“By determining the route in advance, the public and the CPUC (are) conceding the need for the power link plan and avoiding the mandatory listing of alternative plans including a “no-project” alternative that would compare the impacts to the environment if the Sunrise Powerlink plan was either approved or denied,” said Blackburn. “The alternatives discussed should focus on ways to avoid or substantially lessen the project’s significant environmental effects.”

Opposition has not been limited to the environmental community. Republican Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents a large portion of the area where the Power Link would be built, has called the project unnecessary.

“San Diego Gas and Electric’s proposed 500 kilovolt transmission line is of enormous concern to those who live within the corridors of the identified routes. So far, the proposal has generated tremendous fear and anxiety. Based on too many unanswered questions, I am adamantly opposed to this project and the way in which SDG&E is attempting to process it,” said Jacob. “The utility has failed to convince me and many others that the project is necessary.”

The ISO is a not-for-profit public-benefit corporation charged with operating the majority of California’s high-voltage wholesale power grid. Though it bills itself as an “impartial link between power plants and the utilities that serve more than 30 million consumers”, Shirmohammadi admitted when pressed by audience members that the ISO was paid through fees by the major utility corporations in California. This prompted many in the Kearney Mesa audience to question the integrity of both the evening’s meeting, as well as the process as a whole.

“It has been difficult to get accurate information out of this process. Members of the public are not electricity PhDs. This resembles more of a ‘thanks-for-sharing’ exercise than a real discussion,” said Kelly Fuller of the Sierra Club.

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