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Sunrise Powerlink Given The Green Light By The Forest Service

Sunrise Powerlink Given The Green Light By The Forest Service
San Diego Gas & Electric has been given the go-ahead to build the Sunrise Powerlink through the Cleveland National Forest. We'll get local reaction to the controversial decision.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The Sunrise Powerlink is a 119-mile long electrical transmission line proposed by SDG&E to transmit renewable energy from Imperial County to San Diego. It's been subject to regulatory scrutiny and some fierce opposition for more than 5 years. Now it looks as if the last regulatory hurdle for the project has been cleared. The U.S. Forest Service has given approval for the Sunrise Powerlink to cut through the Cleveland National Forest. Here to tell us about that approval is Will Metz, Forest Supervisor for the Cleveland National Forest. Will, welcome to These Days.

WILL METZ (Forest Supervisor, U.S. Forest Service): Hey, thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you say allowing the Sunrise Powerlink through the forest will change the Cleveland National Forest but you gave the approval anyway. Why is that?


METZ: Yeah, the Sunrise Powerlink will certainly have an impact on the characteristics of the Cleveland National Forest primarily from the scenic integrity objectives, also riparian conservation areas and biological resources, and effect on one of our back country, non-motorized land zones. But a lot of mitigation measures have been put into play through the California Public Utilities Commission’s and BLM’s final environmental impact report and statement and those mitigations coupled with the Forest Service mitigations have reduced the impacts that were identified in that – in those final documents quite a lot. I’m very pleased with the reduction of impacts and they’re within a threshold that I think are acceptable.

CAVANAUGH: And I read that you do believe that this is a reasonable and acceptable function for a national forest, to allow a transmission line through it.

METZ: Absolutely. We have national strategic plans as well as forest plans that recognize that the national forests play a significant role in meeting America’s need for producing and transmitting energy. Of course, along with that responsibility is ensuring that we protect all the other resources.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of people are still very concerned about the fire danger of having this transmission line especially go through a national forest. What – How have your worries been assuaged in that direction?

METZ: Yeah. Well, we’ve certainly recognized that there is a risk of wildfire from any electrical transmission lines on National Forest System lands and we’ve taken a really hard look at this and have come up with an approach I think that is comprehensive in nature and will assist us in mitigating a lot of those wildfire risk and concerns. For example, we are incorporating strict control measures associated with any construction activities associated with Sunrise. We’ll be working with the local communities and SDG&E to identify communities at risk from wildfire and to create and maintain defensible spaces around those communities at risk. We’ll also be looking at enhancing our fire facilities to improve emergency responses, and it goes without saying that there’ll be a very significant increase in our coordination between our local emergency services and agencies.


CAVANAUGH: And, lastly, Will, this decision is subject to a 45-day appeals process. What does that mean?

METZ: For those citizens who have made public comments to the CPUC, BLM, FEIR, FEIS…

CAVANAUGH: A lot of initials.

METZ: Yes, they – as usual, huh? And also to the 45-day comment period that we had here on the Cleveland, that will give them standing in the appeal process, and basically it’s a process that, you know, can – allows them, the public, to participate in decisions that are made on National Forest lands.

CAVANAUGH: Will Metz, thanks so much.

METZ: You’re very welcome. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Will Metz, Forest Supervisor for the Cleveland National Forest. Now, I’m joined by Michael Niggli. He’s president and COO of San Diego Gas & Electric. Good morning, Michael.

MICHAEL NIGGLI (President/COO, San Diego Gas & Electric): Good morning, Maureen. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: I’m quite well. Thanks for joining us. It looks as though this long approval process for the Sunrise Powerlink is – seems to be at an end. Did you believe the project would clear this hurdle?

NIGGLI: Oh, absolutely, and the reason is that this – there has been tremendous science into all the environmental studies, tremendous work done by all of the agencies, and at the end of the day, they’ve really worked hard to make sure that the impacts on the project will be minimized in all the lands that we actually cover with this project. And I think the primary purpose here is really one of getting clean air and renewable energy in to our customers here in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: And why do you think San Diego needs this Powerlink? Remind us of what the SDG&E proposal is.

NIGGLI: Yes. You know, right now, we have only one 500 kV line connecting us to the grid throughout Southern California and throughout the western U.S. and we’re the eighth largest city in the country, and that’s very unusual. Cities like Phoenix have six or seven such lines just to make sure you have the proper reliability. So we need this project for reliability of supply here in San Diego. And, secondly, we need it to make sure that we can meet the very strict and aggressive goals by the State of California for renewable energy and those goals are 20% this year and they’re – we’re looking at putting 33% of our energy being supplied by renewable energy, oh, during this next decade. So we’ve got some real strict goals we’re trying to meet and really make a transformation in our energy supply.

CAVANAUGH: And how does this benefit the Imperial Valley?

NIGGLI: Oh, this is a tremendous benefit because Imperial Valley is recognized by just about everyone as having one of the best renewable energy zones in the country. They have not only solar power, which is evident out there, but they have geothermal power, probably several thousand megawatts of geothermal, and in the mountains bordering San Diego and Imperial County, there’s quite a bit of wind resources as well.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any way that when these lines go through the Cleveland National Forest that there’s going to be any oversight by the federal government to monitor whether or not there’s a fire danger or anything of that nature?

NIGGLI: Well, actually the oversight is quite complete. It’s done not only by the federal government but by the state government and also local. So we’ll have people monitoring the project, checking on our progress, making sure that we complete all of the mitigation measures. And, in fact, for instance, one of the thing’s that’s come out in the last few months as the Forest Service has finished their work and the Public Utilities Commission finished their work, we have actually been able to reduce the number of access roads by about 60% and the number of construction yards by about 50% to further reduce the impacts of the project. A lot of that is because we’re going to be utilizing our large world class helicopter for construction of the project for about 50% of the actual towers.

CAVANAUGH: You know, the approval by the U.S. Forest Service is not necessarily going to make all the opposition go away. There are lawsuits pending. Do you see that the timeline for construction is going to be impacted by these court proceedings?

NIGGLI: Well, it could be but I don’t think so and one of the reasons, again, goes back to the strength of the environmental review that’s been done for this project, an 11,000 page environmental impact study, five years of work that’s gone on, tremendous work to reduce the amount of impacts by the Public Utilities Commission, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. And so far, all of the actions that have been taken by agencies to address some of the complaints have overturned those complaints. The Public Utilities Commission has denied several rehearing requests. The Bureau of Land Management’s Interior Board of Land Appeals has denied a motion to stay the project and also denied an appeal. So as they work through this, I’m reasonably confident that we will not have delays. We’re going to go ahead and go forward because we do need this project by the summer of 2012.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Michael Niggli. He’s president and COO of San Diego Gas & Electric. Just a couple of more questions, if I may, Michael. You made a – In reading about this approval, I saw that you made quite a big deal about the number of jobs that are going to come out of this construction. Tell us a little bit about that.

NIGGLI: Yeah, that’s really important at this day and age, too. In the next two months, we’ll start construction on the transmission line itself and there will be 400 to 500 jobs that we will have in place almost immediately for the next several years as we build the line. Now that’s just for construction of the transmission line. What’s really important with the approval of this project is that now the solar and wind developers can get financing for their projects in the Imperial Valley and eastern San Diego and they can then, once they get their permits, start construction, and there’s probably virtually thousands of construction jobs that will be put in place as those companies build out their renewable energy facilities.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you mentioned a date, Michael, for completion. If all goes as you’ve planned when will SDG&E customers actually see electricity coming from this line?

NIGGLI: They’ll be seeing clean, green energy about the summer of 2012.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NIGGLI: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Michael Niggli. He’s president and COO of San Diego Gas & Electric. On the line with me now is Donna Tisdale. She’s secretary of Protect Our Communities Foundation, an organization fighting the Sunrise Powerlink project. Good morning, Donna.

DONNA TISDALE (Secretary, Protect Our Communities Foundation): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: So how big a setback is the Forest Service decision to allow SDG&E to go ahead and build the Sunrise Powerlink through the Cleveland National Forest?

TISDALE: Well, we had prepared for this approval and our attorney’s working on our appeal right now, and we will be filing, you know, litigation if necessary.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, what – Do you have any litigation ongoing?

TISDALE: We have a federal case filed against the Public Utilities Commission and BLM approval of the final EIR/EIS for the project, and we feel like we have a strong case and the Forest approval is based on those approvals. So if we get those overturned, then the Forest approval is automatically overturned.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Are you surprised by the Forest Service decision?

TISDALE: No, not really. You have to look at the politics at play and the renewable energy mandates which, you know, in our opinion are focused on the wrong thing. Instead of, you know, expensive, destructive transmission lines and large scale remote projects, they should instead be focusing on in-basin solar projects and things like that on warehouses, public buildings, parking lots, brownfields, those kind of things.

CAVANAUGH: What about the idea that this construction will bring so many jobs and so much needed activity to the Imperial Valley and to San Diego?

TISDALE: I’m an Imperial Valley native and this is kind of like déjà vu all over again. When the Southwest Powerlink was build and proposed, it was to bring renewable energy in from Imperial Valley, geothermal, solar, etcetera. And here we are, you know, 25 years later and we’re – got the same scenario all over again. Geothermal, Imperial Valley uses an awful lot of water. Imperial Valley farmers have already been cut back in order to transfer water to the cities so that’s a big problem. Some of the big solar projects like Sterling Solar, which is now Imperial Valley Solar, have huge cultural impacts on burial sites, similar to the Padre Dam Reservoir project that was just blocked by the Viejas Tribe and their impacts to their cultural resources. Sunrise Powerlink also has cultural resources in McCain Valley, which are similar to those at the Padre Dam site. They’re cremation sites and there’s a lot of concern there from Native Americans.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Donna Tisdale, secretary of Protect Our Communities Foundation. It’s an organization fighting the Sunrise Powerlink project, and we’re talking about the fact that the U.S. Forest Service has given approval for the Sunrise Powerlink to cut through the Cleveland National Forest. There are still a lot of people, Donna, that have a lot of concerns about the fire danger of this transmission line. Talk to us a little bit about that.

TISDALE: Well, it’s not just the transmission line itself. The transmission line would allow a project like Tule Wind in McCain Valley with over 125 or 130 turbines and each one of those turbines actually represents a new significant fire ignition source. When turbines malfunction, they can burst into flame and shed flaming debris down onto the brush, and if that happens in a Santa Ana type wind or even just a mild wind, it can get out of control in our rural areas. And then the routes that they’re taking are areas that don’t even have any power lines or roads now and they’re difficult to defend. The power lines themselves will make it difficult to access these canyons and valleys in order to fight the fire. Firefighters have told us they will not be able to get within a 1000 feet on either side of these power lines and you cannot drop retardant on the lines whether they are active or deenergized. So it creates a big problem. You install a new ignition source for fire and you create an indefensible space. It’s devastating for our rural communities and the natural lands.

CAVANAUGH: If, indeed, the Sunrise Powerlink project goes through, I’m wondering, do you have a plan C and D? Do you have a plan of how perhaps to monitor this transition line to mitigate these concerns that you have about fire?

TISDALE: You know, Will Metz talked about mitigation. Basically what it is, they buy off the interests. If you have an interest in firefighting, they’ll give you a new fire truck or, you know, supplement firefighting. But what – In the mitigation, it’s only, I think, originally $250,000 in firefighting, mitigation funding. And $59,000 a year after that, per year after that. That’s nothing. And yet they’ve got defensible space at over a million dollars, so that means that they’re going to, in my opinion, clear cut under these power lines, which will, you know, actually create a huge visual scar and create erosion out here, which, you know, there, in turn, impacts water resources.

CAVANAUGH: So as I understand it, the Protect Our Communities Foundation is appealing the approval given by organizations that, indeed, the Forest Service based its approval on so if they’re overturned, the whole thing will be overturned. Is that your goal now?

TISDALE: That is. That has been our goal from the beginning because the Sunrise Powerlink is not needed. We’ve got independent studies that say there’s between 2500 and 5000 megawatts of solar capacity existing on existing buildings, rooftops, warehouses, those kind of things, and studies that show that those kind of jobs are more longterm. It will create more jobs that will last longer than temporary construction jobs.

CAVANAUGH: Donna, thank you so much.

TISDALE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Donna Tisdale, secretary of Protect Our Communities Foundation. We’d like you to continue this conversation online. Post your comments at And stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.