The Troubled Sunrise Powerlink: The Environment Versus Renewables
Mar 13, 2011 - Bill Opalka - energybiz.com
Sunrise Powerlink. The Name suggests the dawn of a new era of eco-friendly power, so why is the 112-mile-long high-voltage transmission line under construction by San Diego Gas & Electric, designed to bring power from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County, under fire from various environmental and civic groups? For exactly the same reasons that transmission lines come under fire whenever and wherever they're proposed: because no one wants lines and poles obstructing their view and because transmission lines don't generate anything but costs. They're hard to love and easy to oppose.
Transmission lines and the grid in general are seen as necessary evils and, as distributed generation becomes more realistic, not even so necessary in many cases. SDG&E has been building the case for its transmission line for over seven years, and although the project has been approved by the Forest Service, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the various California power and regulatory authorities, the PR battle goes on.
Not that it was easy to win approval from the regulatory authorities. California Public Utility Commission Administrative Law Judge Jean Vieth rejected the line outright, and the original proposed route through AnzaBorrego Desert State Park was rejected. Approval was only granted after the line was shifted south, avoiding the park and running closer to the Interstate 8 corridor.
Bill Powers, an engineer and independent consultant to a number of environmental groups, has opposed the project on both economic and environmental grounds. Powers is particularly concerned about inconsistencies in SDG&E's arguments over the years. Part of the original justification, according to Powers, was to provide cheap, low-cost gas power from a plant SDG&E's parent company, Sempra, owns in northern Mexico. Justification then shifted to green power.
"So there was skepticism from the start; a new pathway for gas was never necessary, except perhaps from the vantage point of stockholders," Powers said. "The position then morphed from low-cost gas to green power, but even that has been inconsistent, first emphasizing geothermal, then solar, and then back again to geothermal and wind. So, even in 2005, I thought they were simply trying to hang a cloak of green over the transmission line."
The California commission published an exhaustive 11,000-page environmental impact report, and the first alternative was no transmission line at all. Instead, the report suggested a mix of energy sources, including distributed-generation solar. San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob actively opposed the route, primarily on environmental grounds, but also because of what she perceived as the line's threat to the ability of firefighters to combat wildfires. The area the line will go through is among the most fire-prone landscapes in the world because of an abundance of dense, dry fuels and the infamous Santa Ana winds. To address these concerns, SDG&E made various changes to the line, including eliminating more than 40 poles and other structures and donating use of its helicopters to fire departments in the event fire does erupt along the Sunrise route.
The issues raised by Sunrise Powerlink are hardly unique. T. Boone Pickens abandoned his ambitious wind project largely because of the difficulties and uncertainties involved in getting approval for new transmission lines. While there's broad agreement about the need for more renewable power, except for distributed-generation sources, the problem of moving those electrons from where they're generated to where they're used is fraught with aesthetic, environmental and cost issues.
Stephanie McCorkle, director for communications for California's Independent System Operator, acknowledges that getting public support for the project has been challenging. "It's a balancing act because you have environmental concerns and a lot of support for renewables," she said. "At the same time, there are concerns about what these lines might do to various species, and how they can threaten pristine landscapes. What makes us beautiful is also often what makes us rich in renewables, but if you love renewables, you need to love transmission infrastructure, if only to a certain degree, because for the most part, you can't have one without the other."