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Political Battle Over Sunrise Powerlink Continues


San Diego Gas & Electric held a groundbreaking for the 117-mile Sunrise Powerlink transmission line last week, but County Supervisor Dianne Jacob will not give up her fight against the project. KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner joins us to discuss the history of the controversial project, and to talk about why Supervisor Jacob continues to oppose construction of the line.

San Diego Gas & Electric held a groundbreaking for the 117-mile Sunrise Powerlink transmission line last week, but County Supervisor Dianne Jacob will not give up her fight against the project. KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner joins us to discuss the history of the controversial project, and to talk about why Supervisor Jacob continues to oppose construction of the line.


Gloria Penner, KPBS Political Correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And you're back on These Days here on KPBS. And we're gonna be talking a bit about a very important subject, the sunrise power link that's been going through public hearings and the Courts for so long that many heaved a sigh of of relief when the project broke ground last week. But just because the governor has given his blessing does not mean that opponents of the power line have given up of the sunrise power line still represents a battle to those who see it as [CHECK AUDIO] power grab by the electricity company. With us is our political correspondent, our KPBS political correspondent, Gloria Penner with her weekly political fix. Gloria, great to have you here.

PENNER: Good morning, it's great to be here, and a very interesting topic we have today.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So remind us, why has SDG&E pushed so hard to have this link built across the desert to San Diego.

PENNER: Well, SDG@E and others say that the region is growing and that means that demands for new supplies of energy are growing, that we're gonna need a new power plant every five years, we'll have to find land for the power plant, and so part of SDG&E's long-term plan is conservation. They say energy efficiency programs and more renewable energy, including roof top solar. So the idea of sunrise is to carry renewable energy from the Imperial Valley where they have a lot of sun in the Imperial Valley, a lot of wind, that's renewable, to San Diego. However, the opponents say that they believe that Sempra, the parent company of SDG&E, plans to use the sunrise power link to import dirty fossil fuel from its plants in Mexico. So that really sets up part of the tension right there.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So we had this ceremony where the governor, Schwarzenegger was on hand to take part. What did he have to say about the project?

PENNER: Well, the governor is high on the project now. He sees the desert as a gold mine for clean energy. He says that the project is part of keeping a promising that he made to voters to avoid rolling blackouts. He actually sees it as an example to the entire nation as how you can use clean green energy. And he sees -- as I said, the line carrying the energy from massive projects to gather solar and wind energy, and he does recognize the questions that have developed about the environment and about sensitive species. But he said that the project backers have met with environmentalists to address those concerns. So as I said, he's high on it, and he continues to support it.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So on the other side, there's various different groups that are opposing it. So can you give us an idea of what some of the strongest arguments have been against this the sunrise power link.

PENNER: Absolutely, there are very strong arguments regarding fire hazards having -- when you have transmission lines and electrical power there. On tall towers. Upon concern about the fire risks there. Instead -- there are also feelings that this is a big land grab of the wilderness area, a pristine, beautiful wilderness area, and that the environment should remain natural and that hundreds of large scale energy projects, which would be needed to make the solar energy and the wind energy that would be carried on the transmission line, they will mar the area and destroy the look of it. And what people go out to the desert to live for and to live like. Also, Native Americans want to protect tribal artifacts. And they feel as though their culture will be destroyed as these towers are reacted and march up and down the desert landscape.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And one of the strongest voices against it has been San Diego County supervisor, Diane Jacob, who represents the people out there. Why is she so opposed.

PENNER: Well, the opponents including Jacob believe that power needs could be met through roof top solar projects instead of massive industrial scale projects. But she sees another reason that the utility is pushing for the project.

NEW SPEAKER: Where are the renewables going to come from that are supposed to go over this line? This is a hoax, it's a joke, it's a scam. And the only reasonable against the line is because of money. This is SDG&E and Sempra's life blood, transmission, infrastructure. And if they don't have this line, they don't make money. And it's all at the expense of ratepayers, and that's all of us.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Them's fighting words.

PENNER: Those are fighting words. And she has come out fighting. This has been a two fisted struggle on her part against the big guys, talking about against governor Schwarzenegger, against senator Diane Feinstein who is all for the project who says it will bring green energy and jobs, very needed jobs, to the entire state, actually.

ALISON ST. JOHN: The thing is, though, I suppose it make it's -- it's a logical conclusion that there's money behind this, they're gonna make money. But if they're gonna make money off green energy, people might say that's fair enough. What kind of money is Jacobs talking about?

PENNER: Well, she's talking about all kinds of money, she's talking about money that changes political hands. And she'll give you an idea of that in her own words.

NEW SPEAKER: This is the largest example of a pay for play in the State of California that I have ever seen. Follow the money and you will find out exactly why the decisions are made and who's behind the decisions. Starts with the California public utilities commission and the letter that governor Schwarzenegger sent to his appointed commissioners and told them, didn't ask them, told them to vote to approve this line. There is an 11000 page document, by the way, was funded by SDG&E. The conclusions in that 11000 page document, largest in California history, it concludes the line is not needed.

PENNER: Well, I think she also said during our interview that -- why would chambers of commerce in north and south county throughout the San Diego area be so interested in seeing this built? And then she more than implies that those chambers received money from SDG&E and Sempra. So she really feels that money is changing hands here.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And in terms of the profits, is the money gonna be connected more to power sources south of the border? Perhaps not the ones in the Imperial Valley? Is that part of what she's imply something.

PENNER: I think she's implying that SDG&E really needs this power line in order to make money. That money is made through transmission, through infrastructure. And that without this power line, the profitability of SDG&E would be down. That line's gonna cost $2 billion. She's also suggesting and other opponents suggested too that the $2 billion, which comes from ratepayers according to Jacob, that this $2 billion could instead be invested in roof top solar. And she said very specifically in Germany it works, and Germany doesn't have as much sun as San Diego. So this could really be the new future for San Diego and the new future for California.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So obviously Jacob is representing people in the back country, who the line is coming through their backyards, and I've talked to ranchers, property is gonna be severely affected by this line. So we happened where Jacob is coming from in representing their interests, but why is she saying all the rest of us should be so concerned about this project?

PENNER: Well, she has very strong feelings about the involvement of all of the people in this.

NEW SPEAKER: It's not just about the people that live in our back country. This affects all San Diegans. And that's why there's a community organization of thousands of individuals that have hired a topnotch attorney, and there are federal and state lawsuits that are pending. So this is not a done deal. Those lawsuits will take a while, no doubt, but there's still a chance to derail this very expensive, unneeded project.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Do you have more details on those lawsuits, Gloria?

PENNER: Yeah, well are several lawsuits before the California Supreme Court challenging the approval by the state public utilities commission. Of there are suits to stop the U.S. forest service approval. They may not be filed yet, but they are expected to be filed. You can has a lawsuit going. And there is a lawsuit that challenges the January 2009 decision of the U.S. bureau of land management to approve the power line. And it's from three local community groups that protect our communities, foundation, back country against dumps, and east county community action coalition. So she's right. There are several lawsuits. Now, whether they will be heard or heard in a timely way, she has questions about whether, for example, the judge is going to read all 11000 pages of that report that she mentioned earlier. Or that their staffs will. So I think she said it's up to the judges.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Now on the other side of the coin, of course, there are many residents in the Imperial County who hope that the project will be built because because.

PENNER: I can tell you that there's a 29 percent unemployment rate in Imperial County. And I think nothing says it better than this little piece that I found in the Imperial Valley press on line. It says to us, this is about growth and jobs; that the Imperial Valley needs this sunrise power line link as an economic life line. Its construction will help jump start current renewable projects, but also bring new development into our region. So you can see that Imperial County, at least the people who are speaking out on it, seem to be pretty high on it and excited about it, even though there are groups who say we must protect our desert.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I understand that there's now some doubt about some of the contracts to build a solar energy out there.

PENNER: Yeah, there is a large solar energy project. It's called Imperial Valley Solar. And it seems that there are some issues, legal issues, and financial issues that investors are getting concerned about whether this can really be pulled together. It may be the possibility that some of the investors are pulling out. And there's been disruption back there. So if you don't have these large, solar industries being built in the Imperial Valley, then you don't have the renewable energy to be brought on the transmission line. It's a fascinating situation. It's been going on for a long time. Alison, I was able to find documentation all the way back to January, 2006, before the California public utilities commission. And at that time, the commission was not particularly high on the whole project. They really were concerned. And that was five years ago.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So even if some of the green energy sources that SDG&E has been touting as the main reason they want to put this line in, even if they don't happen for a while, there are still some other sources that SDG&E definitely wants to tap, right? And why do they want to tap them so much.

PENNER: Well, you know, there are other sources of there are wind sources, but there's concern about that too. And then as was mentioned before, in Mexico, they own an LNG plant, a liquid natural gas plant. And so it's possible, it's been discussed, that this line could bring in the energy from the Mexican utilities as well.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay. And in the case of Jacob, who is so strongly against it, do -- can you say why it is that she is taking such a strong strand rather than just saying this thing is now a done deal.

PENNER: Well, I asked her very specifically, I said is -- are there political reasons for you doing this? And she said no, actually I'm being politically incorrect as far as some people are concerned. I'm not doing the right thing, politically. But she really is. I mean, she's representing her constituency. She represents the back country in San Diego. And truly with term limits in the kicking in until 2020, I believe, she could be elected a couple of more times. And people have been loyal to her. They have elected her now for at least 15 years. I don't know whether she's doing it for the vote. But she is indeed representing the concerns of the back country.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Great, well, Gloria, thank you so much for wringing us up-to-date on that. Obviously it's still an ongoing debate.

PENNER: It is.

ALISON ST. JOHN: That's KPBS political correspondent and host of San Diego Week, Gloria Penner.

PENNER: Thank you.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And stay with us, coming up in the next hour, it's Film Club of the Air here on These Days.

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