By Kim Robson
Sunrise Powerlink (SPL) is the lyrical name given to a new 120-mile-long electrical transmission route currently under construction in eastern San Diego County. Owned by San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, the SPL is designed to bring renewable energy from the solar and wind farms in Imperial County to the energy-starved cities by the coast.
The first proposed route for the transmission line would have sliced through pristine mountain, desert, and coastal wildlands in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the Cleveland National Forest. Early and strong opposition to the route, which would have destroyed the character of the backcountry we all cherish, succeeded. The current route, which was described by SDG&E in early hearings as “infeasible,” roughly parallels Interstate 8. Wide loops to the north and south avoid Anza-Borrego and most of the Cleveland National Forest.
The Powerlink now runs through the small east county towns of Ocotillo, Jacumba, Alpine, Boulevard, and Campo, whose residents have loudly protested as construction came through. San Diego County Supervisor Diane Jacobs has opposed the project since SDG&E proposed it in late 2004, and has spoken before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Numerous helicopter accidents haven’t helped SDG&E’s image amongst residents.
The SPL’s towers and substations march straight through the once pristine Japatul Valley, ruining this area as a well-traveled wildlife corridor, not to mention what it has done to the ten off-the-grid residents there. They live without electricity, but in the ultimate irony, they will have to live with red blinking lights from the towers every night. The route also cuts through the nesting sites of 20 Golden Eagles, according to David Bittner, wildlife biologist for the Wildlife Research Institute.
In order to sell the new transmission line to ratepayers, SDG&E had promised that the Sunrise Powerlink would bring them renewable energy from solar power plants in the Imperial Valley. President & CEO Debra Reed testified before the CPUC that SDG&E would make three voluntary commitments if Sunrise was approved: (1) not contract, for any length of term, with conventional coal generators that deliver power via Sunrise; (2) replace any currently approved renewable energy contract deliverable via Sunrise that fails with a viable contract with a renewable generator located in Imperial Valley; and (3) voluntarily raise SDG&E’s renewable energy goal to 33 percent by 2020.
They proudly pointed to the proposed 708-megawatt Imperial Solar 2 plant near Ocotillo, but that project was plagued with engineering, legal, and financial difficulties from the start, and the parties involved have since filed bankruptcy. Now SDG&E is pinning its hopes on the Ocotillo Express Wind project, expected to generate up to 550 megawatts of power using 155-foot-tall wind turbines spread across more than 12,000 acres of the Jacumba Mountains. This project is certain to attract more controversy. Wind turbines cause a shocking number of wildlife deaths, particularly among bats, songbirds, raptors, and condors.
Despite not having a single source of renewable energy lined up, on June 17, 2012, SDG&E switched the 500,000 volt transmission line on. With the San Onofre nuclear power plant down for repairs, the perceived need for more electricity is being fed by clever marketing. But they didn’t mention where the energy is coming from. Well, let’s take a look at Sempra Energy’s facilities. Sempra happens to be the owner and developer of an enormous liquefied natural gas terminal in Ensenada, Mexico, as well as a 625-megawatt gas-fired power plant near Mexicali, and the pipeline that connects the two. Both the Sunrise Powerlink and the existing Southwest Powerlink are connected to Mexican power plants, where environmental regulations are lax or nonexistent. It’s not much of a surprise that the promise of the Sunrise Powerlink’s carrying only renewable energy was an empty one. There is no legal requirement that the line carry only renewable power. In fact, the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s power grids, can order the line to be used for energy from any source, at any time, in order to keep the grid buzzing.
Green energy doesn’t come without a steep environmental price tag. Is it possible, just maybe, that we could get by with less electricity? The Kumeyaay Indians saw these mountains and the wildlife in them as sacred. We, as well, should hold it sacred before it’s too late.