Brown Dedicates Controversial San Diego Transmission Line

Transmission lines in the California desert | Photo: J brew/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California Governor Jerry Brown presided today over the official opening of the 117-mile high-voltage Sunrise Powerlink transmission line, which has been carrying electric power from the Imperial Valley to coastal San Diego since June. "The Sunrise Powerlink is an extraordinarily sophisticated technology that will bring solar and wind energy from the Imperial Valley to San Diego," Brown said. "Most immediately, it will help keep the lights on during this year's hot summer with the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant offline."

The ceremony marks the end of San Diego Gas & Electric's (SDGE) several-year campaign to route and build the Powerlink, which the utility touted as a way to bring renewable energy from Imperial County's geothermal, solar, and wind installations to consumers along the coast. Estimated construction costs for the line approach $1.9 billion.

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The transmission line has been marked by controversy since its inception. The most heated battle involved a proposed northern route for the transmission line, which would have cut through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park -- the state's largest park.

Some opponents claimed that the emphasis on renewable energy was intended to distract from the line's eastern terminus' proximity to two large gas-fired power plants across the border in less-regulated Mexicali. The Mexicali plants are owned by Sempra, SDGE's parent company, and are fed via Sempra's Gasoducto Bajanorte pipeline from the firm's Energia Costa Azul Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plant near Ensenada. Critics have alleged that the Sunrise Powerlink is really intended to carry electrical power from the Mexicali plants. SDGE has no legal obligation to carry only renewable energy on the transmission line, but has pledged never to use it to carry power from coal-fired plants.

The environmental impact of the line even in its southern alignment through the Cleveland National Forest drew fire as well, some of it having to do with actual fire: the line traverses some of the rugged country burned in the 2003 Cedar Fire, and opponents pointed out the risk of new fires caused by sparking. Opponents also cited threats to Peninsular bighorn sheep habitat, scenic values, and quality of life issues. The California Public Utilities' Commission (CPUC) took the unusual step of listing a "no-action" alternative as their preferred alternative in their Environmental Impact review of the project, stating that a mixture of conservation and increased rooftop solar in San Diego were a better environmental choice than building the transmission line.

Nonetheless, the CPUC approved the project in late 2008 and the BLM did likewise in January 2009. The line will eventually carry a gigawatt of power to San Diego, whatever the source of that power may be. Utility-scale renewable energy projects are being built along the line's route, including the controversial Ocotillo Express Wind project and Sempra's 156-megawatt Energia Sierra Juarez wind project in Baja.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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