EPIC Director Quoted in Article on Sunrise Power Link

SANDAG panel urges neutral position on power line

SAN DIEGO -- A panel recommended Wednesday that San Diego County's public officials not take a position for or against a controversial power line until environmental studies are completed next year.

The San Diego Association of Governments' energy working group, composed of business leaders, city and county officials, environmentalists and students of the energy industry, voted 13-1 to recommend that the association board sit on the sidelines, for now.

The regional planning agency's 20-member governing board is made up of officials from the region's 18 cities and its county government, and is set to discuss whether to take a stance on San Diego Gas & Electric Co.'s $1.3 billion Sunrise Powerlink project on Nov. 17.

So far, about half the board members have come out in support of the project individually, according to a list of supporters on SDG&E's Web site.

The utility has proposed constructing a 500-kilovolt transmission line that would run 150 miles from El Centro in Imperial County to Carmel Valley and boost the region's power supply by 20 percent. The utility serves San Diego County and southern Orange County.

The line would run through Anza-Borrego State Park, Ramona and Rancho Penasquitos.

The project is opposed by residents of communities the wires would cross, and environmental groups who have said they worry about the potential for harming wildlife and ruining scenic views. On the other side, it has been endorsed by a number of area businesses and cities.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which will ultimately decide the project's fate, recently launched a study of the cost, the need for the extra power and the likely environmental and community impacts of the proposed transmission line.

In a ruling Wednesday, the commission announced it will publish a draft environmental report by Aug. 3, then will conduct hearings in September and October. The agency is scheduled to issue a final report by Nov. 20, 2007, and decide whether to grant permission to build the line by January 2008.

With that timeline in place, energy group members decided it was premature to take a stance until the draft study lays all the details on the table. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Greg Parks of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, which has come out in favor of the wires. The group also stressed the need for more energy conservation.

SDG&E's representative on the energy group did not take part in the discussion or vote. An attorney for the association of governments said the utility had a conflict of interest.

Before the group's recommendation goes to the board, it first will be taken up by the association's regional planning committee on Friday.

Besides shoring up a projected 1,000-megawatt shortfall, SDG&E says it needs the line to comply with a state law that requires California's major utilities to get 20 percent of their power from nonfossil fuel sources such as solar and wind power by 2010. Susan Freedman, senior regional energy planner for the association, said that SDG&E currently gets 250 megawatts from such sources, and will need to quadruple that amount.

A megawatt is the standard measuring unit for electricity and most of the time can keep the lights on in 750 to 1,000 homes.

Under the law, utilities could be fined millions of dollars for missing the 2010 deadline, said working group member Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at the University of San Diego. But he said lawmakers have hinted they will relax the law if utilities are having trouble on the eve of the deadline.

SDG&E says Sunrise would help the region harness the power of the sun and geysers near the Salton Sea to generate electricity.

But Kelly Fuller, a local Sierra Club member, stressed in a public comment period that the timely development of those rich energy resources is far from a foregone conclusion.

"It's really common to think of Imperial Valley as this big pot of renewable energy ... at the end of the rainbow," Fuller said. "But Imperial Valley is not sitting out there ready to go renewable tomorrow. It may take a while."

Richard Caputo, a retired rocket scientist, chairman of the San Diego Renewable Energy Society and member of a subcommittee that advises the working group, said there may be a better way to generate renewable power. He said the subcommittee just finished a survey that suggests 4,000 megawatts -- almost matching the region's current supply -- could be generated from solar power in the San Diego County backcountry.

"It would be sprinkled all over the place in all sorts of little power plants," Caputo said.

Plants would create 10 percent to 20 percent less electricity if built in San Diego County instead of sun-drenched Imperial County, he said, but "you wouldn't be paying for a $1.3 billion transmission line."

-- Contact staff writer Dave Downey at (760) 740-5442 or ddowney@nctimes.com.