SDG&E Hoping For Final Approval On Sunrise Powerlink
GLORIA PENNER (Host): It’s been several years since San Diego Gas & Electric first floated its proposal to construct a high energy transmission line to bring renewable energy from the Imperial Valley to San Diego. Originally, the towers would have run through North County and the Anza Borrego State Park. The current plan is to run the lines through the Cleveland National Forest and along Interstate 8. So, Miriam, just for background, why was the route changed?
MIRIAM RAFTERY (Editor, East County Magazine): Well, there was massive public opposition. People did not want this going through a state park because of the esthetic concerns and, you know, impacts on wildlife and people in some of the towns that it would go through, so it was changed. The PUC has now routed it – approved a southern route that would go from Imperial County through a lot of the towns in the southern portion of east county, Alpine, Jacumba, places like that, and then swing up through Lakeside.
PENNER: Well, now that the PUC has approved that route, why is the utility scheduling meetings to talk about issues related to the proposed lines? What issues?
RAFTERY: Well, first of all, it’s far from a done deal because there are several lawsuits that could block it in court on various grounds. And also the federal government still has to approve a very large chunk of this to go across federal lands, and that’s not a done deal either. There’s a lot of controversy and a lot of issues there. But also the meetings are, in part, for if the line is finally approved, it is built, there’s still issues of mitigation. You know, what can be done to perhaps lessen some of the impacts that citizens are concerned about.
PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. The SDG&E’s Powerlink is marching toward approval. It just needs approval, I understand, from one more agency, the U.S. Forest Service because this is – the new lines are going to go through the Cleveland National Forest. And then we might see those towers in Cleveland National – in the Cleveland National Forest and as well as other parts of the country – the county. Is this something that you are paying attention to? Are you concerned about it? Are you involved in it? And what do you think of it? Again, our number is 1-888-895-5727. Tony, the interesting thing is that Congressman Bob Filner, who represents the southern part of San Diego, is asking for a new environmental review of the new southern route. Why is this?
TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Well, for one thing, he’s upset that a man named David Hayes is a current member of the Department of Interior hierarchy and he previously was a lobbyist. I mean, when he wasn’t in government, he had to make a living and he was a lobbyist for the utility company. You know, what interests me here is that while we all know and agree that San Diego is the most divine place ever created on the planet, we do exist on the kindness of others. Without the Port of San Pedro, without the LA – without Los Angeles airport, we – our economy couldn’t exist. And if we look to our neighbors to the east, Imperial County, without some of their water that we just got through buying—David Hayes was part of that deal when he was in a different administration—without their water and now without some of their renewable energy, we can’t really go about our merry way. San Diegans really are not self-sufficient and this may be one of the prices we have to pay. Those ugly, crackling wires—and I lived near some of them some years ago—may be a price we have to pay because we are not a self-sufficient universe.
PENNER: Well, I think that brings up a very interesting point, David. And that is, how urgently is power from renewable sources needed in San Diego? Why does it have to be shipped in? Why can’t we just renew power in our own homes with solar panels and that kind of thing?
DAVID KING (Founder/Editor, sandiegonewsroom.com): Well, I think we’re years away from when we can expect that everyone will have a solar panel on their own home and that that will suffice for our energy needs. The irony here is that California attempts to be a leader, a pioneer, in clean energy and with AB-32, forcing renewable energy…
PENNER: Explain quickly AB-32.
KING: It requires a reduction in carbon emissions statewide, and it requires that every single project study its carbon footprint, basically. Here we’ve got SDG&E wanting to use clean energy but in California it’s impossible to get any project completed, whether or not it’s one that’s environmentally beneficial or not. So it’s just – California wants to be the leader on clean energy but it’s difficult, I will say, in California to get any project approved, whether it’s a sewage treatment project or energy or anything because of our environmental laws that allow people to block projects.
PENNER: Miriam, you were about to say something?
RAFTERY: Well, yes, Gloria. First of all, there’s no guarantee, despite what SDG&E says, that the power on this line will be renewable. And, in fact, when a PUC commissioner asked them point blank to guarantee that a certain percentage would be for renewable resources, they refused to guarantee even a small percentage.
PENNER: What is the alternative if it’s not renewable? What kind of power would we be bringing…
RAFTERY: Well, it could possibly be bringing up power from Mexico. They have various power plants and facilities down there. So until we see the signed contracts with these wind farms and solar farms that they’ve certainly talked about, we really don’t have a guarantee of that. And, secondly, there’s a big argument that just how green is a project if it puts us at a great risk of wildfire, which this project clearly does. The PUC’s own, you know, EIR, the EIR report itself, said that this was a severe and unmitigable fire hazard. We had half a million people evacuate the biggest wildfires in history here.
PENNER: Interesting. I want to remind our listeners in case you’re wondering about this discussion, we are an opinion program and you are getting some opinions. So let’s hear an opinion now from Don in Carlsbad. Hi, Don, you’re on with the editors.
DON (Caller, Carlsbad): Well, thank you, Miriam. You addressed a couple of issues that…
PENNER: No, no, I’m – I’m Gloria.
DON: Yes, but for Miriam’s comments.
PENNER: Oh, okay.
DON: Thank you, Gloria, for hosting this. It’s very timely. I think what’s going on here is much more than just a local issue. It can very well set precedent for the rest of the country. We can do – we can generate sufficient renewable energy in San Diego County—we’re the size of the state of Connecticut—in tapping into existing infrastructure. Self-reliance was mentioned earlier. There’s a study that’s been done that’s – be access to SBsmartenergy.org (sic) that gets into detail is how we can do this locally, create local jobs, local business opportunities, and not have to pay $2 billion for an extension cord which very well may not carry any renewable energy, at least initially. So I would just encourage people to think locally. Let’s do what we can locally, stimulate our own economy, and do transmission lines as needed.
PENNER: Okay, well…
DON: Even if things go well, it takes 10 years to get a transmission line approved.
PENNER: Thank you very much. I’m going to take one more call and then I want to get your comment, Miriam. Let’s hear from Stephanie in La Mesa. Hi, Stephanie, you’re on with the editors.
STEPHANIE (Caller, La Mesa): Hi. My basic comment is just that, I mean, in the Imperial Valley area, their unemployment rate right now is about 27%, which is huge. And I know that directly the Sunrise Powerlink would create, I think it was up to about almost 500 immediate construction jobs to create the plant and then the larger economic impact would come from jobs like indirectly supporting the project. You have an opportunity to really boost San Diego’s unemployment rate with this project, and not to mention their green jobs and they’re helping our economy in a natural and environmentally friendly way and I just don’t see why we wouldn’t want to take advantage of that.
PENNER: Okay, thank you very much, Stephanie. All right, Miriam, your comments.
RAFTERY: Well, creating green jobs is a great idea but there’s more than one way to go about that. You know, the SDG&E study, when they concluded that we couldn’t meet our power needs with rooftop solar, conveniently only looked at residential. But imagine if we had solar on – if we had incentivized putting solar onto the rooftops of commercial buildings, shopping malls, government buildings, schools, military installations. We could produce a lot of solar and create a lot of green jobs having folks put all those solar panels on and we could become energy self-sufficient. And for that matter, Imperial County could, you know, could have similar initiatives there to become its own energy production center.
KING: I’m attempting to bridge the gap here a bit with Miriam. I will stand behind my statements that with the California Environmental Quality Act, with multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency reviews of every project, with litigation, California is the most difficult place on earth to get a project done. However, I will not say that it’s beyond question that this Sunrise Powerlink is a green project. I don’t – I think that’s open to subjective determination.
PENNER: We will come back to this subject in just a moment. We’re going to take a short break. We’ll get more of your comments and we’ll hear from Tony Perry, who is ready to talk on the subject as well. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. We’re right in the middle of a discussion of the SDG&E’s Powerlink, having a vigorous discussion here and you, of course, are part of that as well. Let me tell you who’s at the table with me today. It’s Tony Perry from the Los Angeles Times and Miriam Raftery from East County Magazine, and from sandiegonewsroom.com we have David King. And we also have you. But before I go to Jessica in San Diego, I want to hear what Tony has to say about all this.
PERRY: Well, it is true. We have the same sun and wind as Imperial County but what we also have, though, which is different is a different political infrastructure, and I think David is right. Not only is California the toughest place, San Diego County may be the toughest of the tough. Imperial County, whole different situation because of their unemployment, different political tempo, and they like the steam power and solar and wind. Now that doesn’t mean those projects, as Miriam would suggest, are going to succeed in the long run. It wasn’t that many years ago when they were trying to make power out of cow chips out there. I went out and people were spending tens of millions of dollars and the cow chips flopped. That may yet be the case with the wind and the solar and the geothermal so we may be building a line that does not bring the kind of power we’re being promised but, as you suggest, Mexican power or something else. So there is a kind of a crapshoot here.
PENNER: Okay, well, speaking of that, we’re going to move on to our other – Oh, Miriam? Miriam.
RAFTERY: I just wanted to mention, Gloria, that there is a middle ground here that nobody’s really talked about. If it’s determined that we do need the power but we don’t want to disrupt places like Alpine and Lakeside with these, you know, with these fire hazards and environmental issues, there’s actually a potential for a route along the border paralleling the existing Southwest Powerlink and, as I understand it, the main thing standing in the way is a small strip of land that is owned by one of the tribes but it’s not tribal land, I mean, it’s not reservation land, which means in theory that could be imminent domain.
PENNER: Miriam, whatever route is discussed, don’t you think there will be objections?
RAFTERY: There will always be objections…
RAFTERY: …but certainly, I think, looking at, you know, the greater good and if there’s a place to put it where it doesn’t present as severe a fire hazard, where it doesn’t impact as many people, where it’s safer, then that would seem to make some sense and also there is a financial incentive out here for utility companies to make convoluted lines because they’re allowed to charge back an 11% profit. So, you know, I think it’s up to the regulators to take a look at whether there’s a shorter way between two points.
PENNER: You mean the longer the line, the more profit they will make?
PENNER: Is that what you’re saying?
RAFTERY: That’s absolutely correct.
PERRY: Well, that’s be – I think that’s because the maintenance potential is greater, is it not? A straight line, okay, fairly easy to get to. You start, you know, circling it around here and there, you’re going to have long term – you’re going to have yourself some maintenance problems.
PENNER: All of our lines are filled and I do want to alert our callers since we’re almost finished with this segment. Get to us, please, at KPBS.org/editors and you can register your comment there. We do read the comments and we often respond to them. So go to KPBS.org/editors. But Jessica’s going to get in on this one, so Jessica from San Diego is with us now. Hi, Jessica.
JESSICA (Caller, San Diego): Hi. How’re you doing?
PENNER: Fine. Go ahead, please.
JESSICA: Good. You know, I’ve been following this project in the news and I do support it for some of the reasons that have been mentioned, the renewable energy and, of course, jobs are huge right now. But I did want to address the environmental review issue. From what I understand, I mean, it’s been a long, extensive project – process. It has been studied and studied and studied. It’s been approved by the Public Utilities Commission and the BLM. And it’s been one of the most exhaustive and extensive environmental review processes in state’s history. I just think it’s time that we need to get this project approved and built so that we can access renewable energy and so that we can create jobs in…
JESSICA: …this economy. But I did also want to address, a caller earlier mentioned Bill Powers’ Smart Energy 2020 report and I do think that rooftop solar is obviously an important part of any sort of energy mix but estimates have shown that to fund that effort would be $20 mil – excuse me, billion dollars and I don’t really think that’s a feasible plan…
JESSICA: …for the region.
PENNER: Thank you very much for your comments, Jessica. And I really would love to address all of that but we have just about run out of time and we are going to move on.