Work Resumes On Sunrise Powerlink After Helicopter Accidents

Transmission lines in the desert | Creative Commons photo by Chazz Layne
Transmission lines in the desert | Creative Commons photo by Chazz Layne

Work on the controversial Sunrise Powerlink transmission line between San Diego and Imperial counties was briefly halted last week after a startling series of mishaps involving helicopters ferrying supplies and equipment to Powerlink work sites.

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) suspended all helicopter operations for construction of the Powerlink on Tuesday, September 27. The PUC lifted the order late Monday, after San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) -- the developer of the transmission line -- reported it had held safety refresher sessions for its crews. The grounding came the day after a load of straw wattle used for erosion control fell from an improperly rigged helicopter. The previous Thursday, September 22, a load of plywood had likewise plummeted to the desert floor from a helicopter rigging, just three days after the same thing had happened to a load of micropile pipe -- rigid steel tubes used to reinforce foundations, like a much stronger form of rebar.

Previous failures in June and August had resulted in two sections of heavy steel lattice and an air compressor falling to Earth. Add to that list of mishaps a rotor strike due to pilot error in February and another in August, and it's worth wondering why the PUC didn't groupd SDG&E's choppers far earlier.

This is not the first problem SDG&E has encountered in its attempt to build the $1.9 billion transmission line across 117 miles of eastern San Diego County. The project has been marked by controversy since SDG&E first proposed it in late 2004.

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An early proposed route for the transmission line would have punched through undeveloped desert and coastal wildlands in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the Cleveland National Forest. (The current route roughly parallels Interstate 8, though with wide loops to the north and south to avoid Anza-Borrego and most of the Cleveland National Forest. This route was described by SDG&E in early hearings as "infeasible.") The Powerlink would run close to the small towns Ocotillo, Jacumba, Alpine,. Boulevard and Campo, among others, and residents have expressed vociferous objection over the years.

Key to the SDG&E's campaign to promote the new transmission line to San Diego ratepayers was a promise that the Sunrise Powerlink would bring renewable energy to the coast from solar power plants in the Imperial Valley. The showpiece source of this renewable solar power was to have been the 708-megawatt Imperial Solar 2 plant near Ocotillo, but that project's developers Stirling Energy Systems and Tessera were beset by engineering and financial difficulties almost from the get-go. In late 2010 the Quechan tribe, concerned over damage to cultural sites and angry that Native people had not been adequately consulted during the project's development, sued to block construction of Imperial Solar 2 and won an injunction preventing work on the project shortly thereafter. Tessera soon filed for bankruptcy, and Stirling Energy Systems did likewise in late September.

With the fate of that project in doubt, SDG&E is pinning its hopes for renewable energy marketing on the Ocotillo Express Wind project, which would generate a maximum of 550 megawatts of power using 155 tall wind turbines spread across more than 12,000 acres of the Jacumba Mountains, just north of the Powerlink's projected route.

Opponents of the transmission line point out that SDG&E's parent company, Sempra Energy, is the owner and developer of the gigantic Costa Azul liquefied natural gas terminal in Ensenada, Mexico, as well as the 625-mw Termoelectrica de Mexicali gas-fired power plant three miles from the US border near Mexicali, and the pipeline that connects the two: the 185-mile Gasoducto Bajanorte. Sempra built the power plant in Mexico 10 years ago due to what it said were onerous licensing requirements for new power plants in California. A decade ago, when that plant was under construction, Sempra was claiming energy development in Mexico would "help alleviate California's energy crisis." Though the plant is hooked up to the existing Southwest Powerlink -- the line whose failure was responsible for the September blackout -- having additional transmission certainly wouldn't hurt. In 2008 SDG&E told San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Dean Calbreath it didn't intend to use the Sunrise Powerlink to import any energy from any new plants in Mexico, but at the same time Sempra was developing the 156-mw Energia Sierra Juarez wind project in La Rumorosa, across the border and a few miles south from Ocotillo Express Wind. All of the power from Energia Sierra Juarez would be sold to SDG&E, and the plan is to connect it to the Sunrise Powerlink near Jacumba.

In any event, SDG&E's promises that only renewable energy would be carried on the Sunrise Powerlink are fairly empty. Once the line is built, there will be no legal requirement that the line carry only renewable power, and in fact the California ISO, which manages the state's power grids, can direct the line be used for energy from any source at any time in order to keep the grid humming.

According to that 2008 article by Dean Calbreath, the renewables angle was intended to lend political cover to what SDG&E expected would be an unpopular project. According to Calbreath, a 2004 meeting of a hand-picked focus group -- which included two sitting San Diego City Councilors -- urged SDG&E to play up the renewables angle so as to minimize public opposition to the new line.

That strategy doesn't seem to have worked, as opposition to the Sunrise Powerlink has been notable from the project's inception, and has helped to shape desert-wide opposition to utility-scale renewable energy projects. Dropping steel bars out of helicopters onto the communities below certainly hasn't helped much.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He's also a co-founder of Solar Done Right and thus doesn't even try to pretend to be an impartial observer of solar development on California's wildlands. He lives in Palm Springs.

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