By E.A. Barrera
Ever since a crowd of more than 400 people turned out on a Tuesday afternoon last January 31 to protest the SDG&E Powerlink project, opposition to the plan has steadily grown. SDG&E officials have not been able to win converts for their plan to build a massive power line from the Imperial Valley through Julian and Ramona that would service consumers as far west as Del Mar.
Called the “Sunrise Powerlink” by SDG&E, the plan would construct energy links and a proposed 500 kilovolt (“kV”) alternating current transmission line that would be placed in service by the year 2010. On maps provided by SDG&E at their project web site www.sdge.com/sunrise powerlink, the proposed service area would encompass a massive swath of land from El Centro to Del Mar.
Three routes heading west from an existing substation in Imperial County are proposed.
“The project will connect the existing Imperial Valley substation near El Centro, California to a new “central” substation located somewhere in central San Diego County,” said SDG&E Senior Vice-president James Avery. “SDG&E will construct two new 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. Where possible, SDG&E anticipates locating new facilities within or along existing rights-of-way.”
Avery said that although specific routes for most segments of the project were not yet known, the total mileage for the 500 kV portion of the project was estimated to be between 85 and 100 miles. SDG&E has asked the CPUC to withhold their required preparation of a state mandated Environmental Impact Report until after it has concluded a series of public hearings to determine a route.
“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.”
During the CPUC’s public hearing on January 31, SDG&E representative Gregory Barnes admitted to CPUC Judge Kim Malcolm that the decision to seek a “need” approval before establishing a route from the CPUC was “a business judgment” and told Malcolm and CPUC Commissioner Dian Grueneich that SDG&E was attempting to streamline the process of developing their new power line.
“We believe that if we have the need established, this would allow us to get the process of determining the route underway,” said Voorhees.
Jacob, who represents much of San Diego’s East County on the County Board of Supervisors, publicly stated her opposition to SDG&E’s plan during the January 31 hearing.
“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.”
Jacob has questioned SDG&E’s honesty, saying the company’s recent past raised questions in her mind over their motivations to build the Power-link project.
“This County was ground zero of the California energy crisis of 2001. Some of the actions of our utility and its parent company have landed before the courts. This sad history causes many to suspect that the utility has ulterior motives for pursing this line, motives other than reliability,” said Jacob.
The Supervisor pointed to SDG&E’s parent company Sempra Energy and their 600 megawatt plant in Mexicali. Jacob said she saw the proposed line as “a veiled attempt to profit from cheap Baja power” by selling it to customers north of SDG&E’s service territory. Jacob also challenged SDG&E’s argument that the San Diego and Imperial County region would need 5,900 megawatt of power by 2015. SDG&E has predicted that without the project, the region will fall about 600 megawatts short of what it needs.
“Numerous experts insist that current forecasts have the region meeting or exceeding the 5,900 megawatt goal. Even if the gap were real, SDG&E’s eagerness to invest in out-of-county generation is especially troubling,” said Jacob. “Why does the utility believe that a costly transmission line through pristine lands is preferable to supporting in-basin generation?” said Jacob.
The Sierra Club filed a motion with the CPUC demanding that they require SDG&E to proceed with an EIR before any route is established. The Sierra Club stated that by determining the route in advance, the public and the CPUC would be 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.
“The alternatives discussed should focus on ways to avoid or substantially lessen the project’s significant environmental effects,” said Paul Blackburn of the San Diego Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club’s opposition is based on guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act. Under CEQA, a development project must undergo a full environmental study to determine if the project will create a significant environmental burden to the area in question. On August 31, 2000, then CEQA Court Judge Judith McConnell rejected a proposal by the County Board of Supervisors to re-zone 191,000 acres of farmland in much of the same backcountry where the proposed SDG&E project would exist. Judge McConnell decided that California law required any major development project or re-zone proposal had to be preceded by a full EIR.
“An environmental review is an environmental alarm bell whose purpose is to alert the public and its responsible officials to environmental changes before they have reached ecological points of no return,” said McConnell. “The court finds that an environmental review deferred is an environmental review denied.”
The Sierra Club insists that allowing SDG&E to proceed without an EIR would also violate CEQA’s provision that environmental concerns play a “co-equal” part in any development decision.
“If the Commission issues a decision on purpose and need before completing an EIR, it would foreclose its ability to use the EIR to choose an alternative way of meeting the same need, its ability to consider a rulemaking to plan for orderly transmission line development in southern California, as well as its ability to disapprove the project because it will already have committed itself to the project,” said Blackburn.