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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

Costs And Benefits Of Sunrise Powerlink Vary By Community

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SDG&E will begin a series of community meetings this week to update residents on the latest plans for the Sunrise Powerlink project. We speak to a representative from SDG&E, and to two people who represent communities along the proposed path, about the impact the 120-mile transmission line could have on their area.

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Approved Route for Sunrise Powerlink

Approved Route for Sunrise Powerlink

A map of the approved route for the SDGE Sunrise Powerlink.

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MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. If San Diego Gas & Electric thought state approval of a southern route for the Sunrise Powerlink was a slam dunk for the project, the company was apparently mistaken. Late last month, Congressman Bob Filner formally requested the U.S. Interior Department conduct a new environmental review of the project. And there's a growing movement in San Diego's East County to stop the 120-mile transmission line from passing through the Cleveland National Forest and El Monte Valley in Lakeside. But on the other side of the coin, residents of Imperial Valley are anxiously waiting for the Sunrise Powerlink to transmit renewable power and create much-needed jobs. Joining me to talk about the controversy over the new route of the Sunrise Powerlink are my guests. Laura Cyphert is co-founder of the East County Community Action Coalition, and a member of the Save El Monte Valley group. And, Laura, good morning.

LAURA CYPHERT (Co-Founder, East County Community Action Coalition): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Andy Horne is an Imperial Valley resident who serves on the Sunrise Powerlink Imperial Valley Community Council. Andy is also deputy county executive officer for Natural Resources Development at the County of Imperial. Andy, good morning.

ANDY HORNE (Deputy County Executive Officer, Natural Resources Development, County of Imperial): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now first, here with an overview of the Sunrise Powerlink project, I’d like to welcome Laura McDonald. She’s Director of Public Affairs and Project Communication for the Sunrise Powerlink project. Good morning, Laura.

LAURA MCDONALD (Director, Public Affairs and Project Communications, San Diego Gas & Electric): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Can you briefly remind our listeners what the Sunrise Powerlink project is and what it could bring to the region?

MCDONALD: Absolutely. The Sunrise Powerlink, first proposed almost six years ago, is a, as you mentioned, 120-mile major electric transmission line that will run from the Imperial Valley into the San Diego region. And it has enormous benefits for the – not only the San Diego region but California and the nation as a whole. It will, first, add much needed reliability to our electric system here in San Diego. You know, one thing I – many of our customers and the folks in San Diego don’t know is that 25 years ago, San Diego Gas & Electric built its one and only major electric transmission line and, you know, 25 years later, San Diego’s grown and it was certainly time for SDG&E to look at adding a second major transmission line to our region, and it has the added benefits of bringing in 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy from the Imperial Valley. And, as many of us know, the Imperial Valley is rich with natural resources, solar, wind, geothermal, and we have the ability to do both, add reliability and bring much needed renewable energy into the region.

CAVANAUGH: Now the proposed route for the Sunrise Powerlink was changed within the last year or so. Why was the proposed route changed from the northern to the southern route that we’re talking about now?

MCDONALD: Well, originally, after many, many, many months if not years of working with community groups, the environmental community and others in a very open and transparent community process, SDG&E had first proposed a northern route, and that was done with the input of many folks throughout San Diego County. And – But at the same time, Maureen, southern routes were studied from the very beginning of the Sunrise Powerlink process. SDG&E studied southern routes as part of its process and – but ultimately went with what we thought was a route that made sense, and that was the northern route. During the process, the California Public Utilities Commission asked SDG&E to go back and restudy southern routes. And in the end, when the Public Utilities Commission approved the project back in December of 2008, they chose what we now have today as the southern route. And we’ve been working very closely with the community groups and folks throughout the southern route to, you know, make sure that we can lessen the impacts of the Sunrise Powerlink on them but we recognize that there are issues but we need the Sunrise Powerlink in San Diego and that means, in this case, we need to make the southern route work.

CAVANAUGH: Well, since SDG&E’s favorite route for this Sunrise Powerlink was actually the northern route, the PUC, from my understanding, said that it’s the southern route or nothing. There was a lot of work that went into preparing environmental impact reports for this northern route but the one that is now being chosen along Interstate 8 and through the Cleveland National Forest and the El Monte Valley, wouldn’t it be a good idea to maybe do some more environmental impact studies on that particular route?

MCDONALD: No. You know what, Maureen, we believe that the southern route was studied and, you know, we have an 11,000 page EIR, the largest EIR in California history. The southern routes were studied. The Public Utilities Commission and the Bureau of Land Management both based their approval of the Sunrise Powerlink on that environmental document. Clearly, it has been studied. The U.S. Forest Service is now looking at it. We are anticipating a record of decision from the U.S. Forest Service. And it is time to put a shovel in the ground and get the Sunrise Powerlink built and put people to work in this county, in San Diego, and in Imperial County where they have a 27% unemployment rate, and have a really terrific added benefit of seeing renewable energy projects built in the Imperial Valley and have that renewable energy transmitted across the Sunrise Powerlink into our region. It’s been studied. There were over 50 community meetings held between the Public Utilities Commission, the BLM and San Diego Gas & Electric throughout this process. There were thousands of people who attended those meetings, provided comments on the EIR. It has been studied, studied and studied, and it is time to move forward and put a shovel in the ground on this project.

CAVANAUGH: I do want to talk a little bit about the community meetings that you have scheduled, though, about this new route, you know, the fact that it’s going to be going through Lakeside. Are there any of the community meetings scheduled in Lakeside?

MCDONALD: Well, you know, Maureen, we proactively set up community council meetings along the entire Sunrise Powerlink route from the Imperial Valley to the Scripps Ranch area. And Lakeside – in Lakeside, we’ve already held two community council meetings in Lakeside. We had a third one scheduled for a week ago. We were asked by the community to reschedule that meeting because it happened to fall in the same week that they were preparing for the Lakeside Rodeo. So at the request of the community, we cancelled that scheduled meeting. We put notices out, we let people know, and it’s been rescheduled. So Lakeside is clearly one of our community councils along with others. And, you know, the community outreach and communications has been a cornerstone of the Sunrise Powerlink project since we first proposed it almost six years ago. SDG&E’s had a very proactive community outreach and communications strategy. And, you know, just this week we launched in Alpine a door-to-door community effort where we had teams of folks out walking the streets of Alpine Boulevard meeting one-on-one with impacted business owners. We will be doing the same throughout the entire route. But it is our number one priority to communicate with and to be out there and answering all the questions and working with the communities impacted by the Sunrise Powerlink.

CAVANAUGH: Laura McDonald, thanks so much for talking with us this morning. I appreciate your taking the time out.

MCDONALD: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Laura McDonald is Director of Public Affairs and Project Communication for the Sunrise Powerlink project. I want to reintroduce my two other guests. Laura Cyphert, co-founder of the East County Community Action Coalition, and Save El Monte Valley group. And Andy Horne is from the Imperial Valley. He’s on the Sunrise Powerlink Imperial Valley Community Council. Laura, let me give you an opportunity to respond to anything that you’d like to that you just hear (sic) Laura McDonald tell us.

CYPHERT: Wow, where to begin? As you know, this project is very complicated and when you hear the public relations presentation of it, you know, it can sound really great on the surface. When I first learned about this project I actually wasn’t opposed to it, and it was only when I started to go into the details and the facts that I became very opposed to it. So I think that there’s been a definite trend in giving information that is true in part but doesn’t give the complete story. The one thing that I would really emphasize the most and what brought me into this process was the lack of community involvement. The whole time, during the six years that Laura McDonald was talking about, these extensive public outreach and community meetings, the whole time before it was approved, SDG&E was on record and in the media and the press saying that the southern route was not feasible. It was not an option, no way, no how. And it was only after the last chance for the public to participate in one of these community meetings with the CPUC that SDG&E came out and said after all it was feasible. It was in the news as a shocker for, you know, Powerlink shocker. And after that time, the CPUC actually fined SDG&E over $1.1 million for misleading them about the route. How can the CPUC be misled and the people of San Diego not? After that time, there was no further meetings in San Diego for the community to give feedback to the CPUC. This route, the south – the northern route, I believe, was thoroughly examined and considered to be not an environmentally sound route. The southern route was not, which is the basis for our lawsuits.

CAVANAUGH: And the CPUC is, of course, the California Public Utilities Commission. Andy, I want to give you the same opportunity to respond to Laura McDonald about what she said about the Sunrise Powerlink. Do you agree? Disagree? Comment?

HORNE: Well, I think a lot of the points that Laura raised are ones that we have been advocating in the interest of developing some of the renewable resources that we have down here in Imperial County. We’re the second largest geothermal power producing county in the nation right now, so we have a history of being able to get these projects built and online, and the biggest constraint we have right now to expanding that industry, which is a major contributor to economic activity here in the county, the geothermal industry is the largest taxpayer in the county and we would like to have the opportunity to increase the output of geothermal, solar, wind energy, and the biggest constraint we have is the lack of transmission capacity to move that energy to the load centers like up in the big cities where it’s going to be used. I mean, that just is a kind of a no-brainer. You have rail lines and freeways that have been built to move products. We have farm products here that have been moved for the last century to areas where they’re going to be consumed and we need that same infrastructure concept expanded to move the renewable products that we have to the markets. So, you know, I think when Laura, Laura Cyphert, says that the southern route was not adequately studied, I would disagree with that a little bit in the sense that, you know, we were down here, have the SDG&E, NCEC – or, CPUC had meetings down here and we actually, the County of Imperial, advocated for the southern route. It was extensively studied and commented upon by local people. The northern route, even though it might’ve had some advantages, had some impacts on agriculture and residences here in Imperial County, and our county disagreed with SDG&E’s preferred route and we’re generally happy that they selected that southern route.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

HORNE: And it was extensively studied during that timeframe.

CAVANAUGH: Laura Cyphert, let me ask you, besides – This is the only route that’s being considered right now. It goes through the Cleveland National Forest and it goes through El Monte Valley. What are your main concerns related to the Sunrise Powerlink?

CYPHERT: There are many, many concerns but I would say that one of the biggest concerns that’s shared by my community, not just in Lakeside but in Alpine and for the Cleveland National Forest and Campo and beyond, is that the environmental impact report identifies this as a class one unmitigable significant fire risk to San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: What does that mean?

CYPHERT: A class one is the highest risk that project can have, and it means that there’s nothing you can do to mitigate that risk. You’ll often hear SDG&E telling people that, no, we’ve looked at the fire issue and we’ve addressed it. Well, the environment impact report says it’s not mitigable. Firefighters have told me that it’s not mitigable. What it’s going to do is to go through the most fire prone areas of our county without even adequate study of that area and it’s going to benefit Imperial County but it’s going to bring San Diego firestorms. The Cedar Fire alone has been estimated to cost us $3 billion by the San Diego Business Journal. So there are unintended consequences when things aren’t adequately studied.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Laura, in some of the information I’ve read on your group, I’ve read that one of the big things that you have against the project is that it runs right in front of El Capitan Mountain. Tell us why that is such a dealbreaker for you.

CYPHERT: It’s a huge dealbreaker. Imagine having a community, whatever community you live, imagine the landmark that your community has named its high school after, that they rally behind, that is significant to the whole community, not just the neighborhood but the entire community, and having a planning group that has no idea that someone is talking about putting an industrial 300-foot energy corridor right directly in front of El Capitan, skylining the mountain, in our only designated scenic corridor without any public input. That area is an area that means so much to our entire community, which is why we’ve rallied so much support from across all of Lakeside. There are a lot of people who feel as though we’ve just completely bypassed – and, again, the Lakeside Planning Group did not know about this route until after it was approved.

CAVANAUGH: Andy, I want to ask you, what would be the problem from your end in having a new environmental impact report done about moving the transmission lines in this new direction? Is it the fact that it’s just going to take more time and the Imperial Valley needs the jobs?

HORNE: Well, that’s pretty much it. I mean, obviously jobs, in and of themselves, even though they’re very important, you know, should be weighed with the evaluation with all the environmental considerations. But our feeling is that, you know, the five – approximately five years that this project has been studied and evaluated has been adequate. And, you know, we, like I say, we would never advocate for, you know, just building the thing just because we need the jobs without looking at all the environmental impacts but this thing has – this project has been studied and we do have projects that are waiting. We have two large projects right now that are, I would say, somewhat in jeopardy. This would be probably, oh, the two of them each would be approximately a billion dollars and so you have a $2 billion investment in the Tessera Solar project down here, which is 750 megawatts of solar power and the Pattern Energy Wind project, which is about 500 megawatts of wind energy, both of which are banking on and waiting for the final approval and construction of this line before they can get their projects going.

CAVANAUGH: I want…

HORNE: If it was a matter of, you know, yeah, we can wait another year, that’s great. But why? I mean, we have – you’ve got the go-through, you know, Laura raised this issue of the fire danger, and I have a home, a vacation home, up in Boulevard that’s less than a mile away from the Sunrise Powerlink route. Fires are, you know, we’ve been through those fires that the – in ’03 and ’07, must like everybody else in East County and it was a major problem. But I don’t think there’s ever been a fire that’s been traced back to a high voltage transmission line or at least a very, very slim likelihood that that powerline, it does create problems in terms of, you know, fighting fires in the area underneath the lines but – and flying helicopters, I guess. I’ve heard that. But causing fires, these lines, these types of lines do not cause, according to the studies, and I’ve read that section because I have a vested interest in making sure that that thing doesn’t…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HORNE: …doesn’t impact me up there in my house in Boulevard and the – there is no evidence that those types of lines cause forest fires.

CAVANAUGH: So are you making a distinction between transmission lines and powerlines because I think down to…

HORNE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think SDG&E is already on the hook – they’ve traced back the cause of, I can’t remember if it was one of those fires, the Cedar or…

CAVANAUGH: The 2007…

HORNE: …one of the other ones, to a faulty distribution line…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HORNE: …that was blown over and sparked and caused a fire and they’re going to have to pay through the nose for that. But the Southwest Powerlink, which goes across more or less that same route, has never caused a fire and I don’t think any large transmission lines – and they’re built differently. They’re further away from the ground, they’re higher up in the air, they’re built on steel towers instead of wood poles that have, you know, more likelihood of being impacted by a high wind event that would cause a fire. These lines do not cause fires.

CAVANAUGH: Laura, let me ask you, is there any area along this route that is – where the transmission lines are going to be built underground or is there any option for that?

CYPHERT: You know, there is one area that is to be underground and that’s through Alpine Boulevard. But just on the issue of the transmission lines and the fire risk, we’re in no disagreement there and SDG&E often brings that up as a point but those are not the issues that are concerning about fire. It’s the inability to fight fires in these fire prone areas. To your question about undergrounding and it being an option, I don’t believe that these options were thoroughly examined. I can tell you that SDG&E did tell us that they looked at old Highway 80 in Lakeside as an alternative route and determined that there was historic concrete underneath the asphalt and that was the reason that that was not an option.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay, so what are – Tell us about the lawsuit that your group is joining. What exactly are you suing for? What’s the goal?

CYPHERT: Our lawsuit, which is jointly with the Protect Our Communities Foundation and Backcountry Against the Dumps is against the BLM record of decision and…

CAVANAUGH: The Bureau of Land Management.

CYPHERT: The Bureau of Land Management record of decision. That was the decision that was after the CPUC did their approval in December and then the BLM in January. It is based on the fact that they did not complete the required environmental review required under the law. And one thing about them, you know, bypassing our community is they didn’t really – they did most of their review, desk review, limited boots on the ground, that’s how we didn’t really learn about it. That also means that they missed huge sections of the route that they just did not evaluate. So we have a very strong case.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, Andy, you were very eloquent in outlining, you know, why you feel so strongly that the Sunrise Powerlink is needed and how it would help Imperial Valley. Do you see any meeting of the minds here? Is there any way that you can see this Powerlink going through and everybody sort of being okay with it?

HORNE: Well, you know, I remember hearing something about Al Gore talking about an inconvenient truth where you talk about global warming and climate change. And building a high voltage transmission line is an inconvenience, there is no two ways about it. There’s visual impacts, there are, you know, real on-the-ground environmental impacts, but we, as a society, have to make a decision. And I thought the decision had already been made. We’re going to move to a greener, cleaner energy future with reduced greenhouse gas emissions and less reliance on imported energy sources. And that, I think, is a major goal that we, as a nation and a society, have to decide that we’re going to abide by and follow through and accomplish. And if we don’t have these transmission lines, as inconvenient as they might be, we’re never going to get there because the energy is going to be generated, is not going to be – you know, geothermal only occurs in areas where you have, you know, faults in the earth, and we know about those faults because of the earthquake we had a month ago.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely.

HORNE: And this is where the energy is. And we have solar energy down here in spades. And so we have to have these transmission lines if we, as a country and as a society, are going to make our goals and objectives become a reality. And we have to have this infrastructure just as we have built other infrastructure to develop our society and to develop our economy. This is critical. And we have some transmission lines now. We know how to build them, we know how to operate them, we know how to mitigate the impacts, and we need to move forward with this one.

CAVANAUGH: Laura, you’re working so hard on this Save El Monte Valley group and the East County Community Action Coalition, do you believe that SDG&E will, indeed, reschedule a community meeting in Lakeside? And in that case, what’s that going to be like?

CYPHERT: I do believe that because of public pressure that they will reschedule that meeting. We have asked them to come back and tell us how exactly they’re going to fight fires in El Monte Valley. That’s the topic we requested back in January, so we’ve been waiting quite a long time to have this additional meeting. I do feel, very important for me to say that I don’t consider this to be an inconvenient truth. Their Smart Energy Plan 2020, which clearly lays out how San Diego can become a renewable energy city with in-basin, local generation of power, that was a study that was sponsored by the San Diego Foundation and transmission lines are only needed when you’re transmitting from a great distance to a city. We have the ability now to produce more energy in basin. We don’t need the Sunrise Powerlink.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well there you have it. I want to thank both my guests very much. Laura Cyphert, Andy Horne, thank you for speaking with us this morning. I appreciate it.

HORNE: Thank you, Maureen.

CYPHERT: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And a thank you to SDG&E’s Laura McDonald who spoke to us earlier in the program. If you’d like to comment about anything you’ve heard this morning, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, we’ll talk about the success of San Diego’s Broadway Heights neighborhood. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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