JUICE: Lilliputians’ Lines

By Published On: November 21, 2008

One of the more interesting things about the Sunrise Powerlink proceeding is the strength and organization of the project’s opponents. Also intriguing is the significant role the transmission project opponents played in getting an administrative law judge to issue a ruling against the project last month. Obviously there’s a certain amount of NIMBY-ism that can be expected with any project as large as the proposed 123-mile, 500 kV electricity superhighway. But in this case, there’s also depth and breadth to the anti-Powerlink movement, backed by a high level of organization in central and northern San Diego County. That resistance was exemplified by those present to testify during a two-and-a-half hour hearing November 7 in San Francisco. Three who spoke on behalf of the project and its need included San Diego Gas & Electric president Debbie Reed, Yakout Mansour, California Independent System Operator chief executive officer, and Brian Brady, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District. In contrast, nearly a dozen speakers during the proceeding were against the project and they largely held their own. Of these, a few were the usual all-development-is-bad types who turn out in opposition to any and every land use project. But the majority were people who had legitimate concerns armed with information, data, and statistics to back their viewpoint. Back when yours truly first started covering the Sunrise Powerlink proposal, even before it was first submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission in late 2005, there were already small pockets of resistance to the proposal, which would cost between $1.5 and $2 billion to construct. But over time the opposition grew to include a vast coalition of environmental activists, consumer watchdogs, area residents and business owners, and even officials from the California Department of Parks & Recreation. With every argument that SDG&E has made--that the line is drastically needed, that it would help expand the utility’s renewable energy portfolio, that it wouldn’t cause any harm to wildlife and the environment--there has been an equal and aggressive counter-argument put forth by the opposition. A very telling moment in the hearing came when Michael Shames, Utility Consumers’ Action Network executive director, told the California Public Utilities Commission and administrative law judge Jean Vieth that the facts SDG&E submitted in an evidentiary hearing earlier in the year were off base. “They don’t have their facts right. You need to be looking at the evidentiary record,” he said. “If you rely upon the record, I think you will find the reasons why the administrative law judge recommended against the project without prejudice,” he told the commission, putting SDG&E on the defensive. In December 2005, when SDG&E filed its initial application with the CPUC for the transmission line, and in subsequent hearings, the utility maintained that the Powerlink is “needed by 2010 for grid reliability, to meet renewable energy goals and to mitigate overall energy costs.” The Sunrise Powerlink, SDG&E said, would help meet the utility’s renewable portfolio standard obligation of obtaining 20 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2010, plus aid in relieving grid stress. In their counter-argument, however, SDG&E’s Reed refused to directly answer questions posed by the commission about which specific projects would or could ensure that Sunrise carries renewable energy. However, she was adamant that the project is needed, and soon. Unfortunately for the utility, the need argument didn’t fly. Vieth ruled that the project wasn’t needed and mentioned the outpouring of opposition in her October 31 ruling. “Of the more than 400 individuals who have commented on Sunrise during our public participation hearings, the vast majority oppose one or more Sunrise alternatives because of impacts on community values,” she wrote. “While we do not base today’s decision, or any (certificate of public convenience and necessity) decision, solely on public opinion, legally we must consider the concerns expressed.” Those concerns repeatedly expressed to Vieth and her predecessor on the case, now-retired administrative law judge Steven Weissman, by dozens of people during the past two years of the proceeding helped shape the judge’s ruling. Commissioner Dian Grueneich proposed an alternate ruling approving the project. This week, CPUC President Michael Peevey threw a third alternative into the mix by releasing a proposal similar to Grueneich’s. His November 18 proposal, however, reaches different conclusions regarding project costs, ratepayer benefits, and the need for the project, which fall in line with the utility’s arguments for the proposed project. For example, the Grueneich proposal estimated over $100 million annually in ratepayer benefits with Sunrise, while Peevey’s decision estimated $125 million. Also, the Grueneich alternative approves the Powerlink route based on the commission approving a compliance plan to ensure that substantial amounts of Imperial Valley renewable resources would be delivered over the Sunrise Powerlink. In contrast, the Peevey alternative states there’s no need for the compliance requirement to guarantee that renewable generation is delivered via Sunrise. The CPUC is expected to vote on it during its December 18 meeting. Although Vieth’s ruling against the Powerlink line was a huge victory for those opposed to the project, it remains to be seen if that victory was fleeting and merely symbolic, and if the commission’s vision as a whole mirrors what Grueneich put forth in her alternate ruling. Stay tuned.

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