POWERLINK BATTLE MOVES TO FEDERAL FRONT AMID GROWING CONTROVERSIES OVER SDG&E

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By Miriam Raftery March 19, 2009 (San Diego's East County)--The next phase in the battle over Sunrise Powerlink, which was approved in December by the California Public Utilities Commission, now moves to the federal level. In the past week, several key developments have occurred under the Obama administration that could impact whether or not Sempra's Powerlink Project will win final federal approvals needed for construction through the Cleveland National Forest and other federal lands. While a coalition of citizens has formed to oppose Powerlink, utilities are lobbying Washington to ease regulations and get transmission lines approved faster - and having some success.

 

On March 11th, Interior Secretary Salazar signed Order 3285, which prioritizes the development of renewable energy and establishes a Department Task Force on Energy and Climate Change. That task force will be co-chaired by the Deputy Interior Secretary--which could be former SDG&E/Sempra Energy lobbyist David Hayes, who has been nominated for the position. Hayes held the same post under President Bill Clinton, but opponents fear that despite a positive environmental record on some fronts, his objectivity on Powerlink may be in question.

 

During a confirmation hearing on Hayes before a Senate Committee, western utility members of the Large Public Power Council named "lengthy review processes and difficulty in valuing the benefits of renewable goals" as problems and told Senators that "empowering a single federal agency, preferably FERC, to facilitate the federal siting process would be very helpful."http://tdworld.com/overhead_transmission/lppc-renewable-transmission-obs...

 

Diane Conklin, spokesperson for the Mussey Grade Alliance in Ramona, observed in an e-mail forwarded to Powerlink opponents, "Guess the LPCC doesn't want pesky citizens interfering with their plans locally or even regionally. It is so much easier to site your lobbyists in one place - Washingon, D.C. Cheaper, too." The federal government has also quietly changed bidding rules to make it easier to build transmission lines on federal lands, allowing power companies to negotiate capacity rights on two proposed lines with a single buyer. (Details: http://enr.ecnext.com/coms2/article_inpi090304PowerLinesBi)

 

POWERLINK OPPONENTS CITE FIRE RISKS

 

Many residents fear Powerlink, if approved, could cause fires through arcing from lines and that firefighters would be prevented from fighting fires near the high voltage lines. In a report to the CPUC, SDG&E admitted that its lines were involved in 167 fires over 5 and a half years. The utility has been officially blamed by the state for causing several of the most devastating wildfires in San Diego history and now faces lawsuits from local and state government as well as homeowners.

 

Donna Tisdale, Chair of Boulevard's Planning Group testified before the Califiornia Public Utilities Commission in a hearing yesterday in San Diego for approving the Southern Route for Powerlink and allowing "SDG&E to bulldoze its way through our environmentally sensitive and highly fire prone community. Over 20,000 acres was illegally down zoned for the project." She added, "SDG&E just settled for a million dollars, without admitting to lying to the Commission about the southern route." Several groups are preparing to file lawsuits over the matter, she added.

 

The Obama administration seeks to ease regulations for large-scale wind and solar farms in an effort to combat global warming and provide energy independence for America. But industrial-scale renewable energy projects require transmission lines. In the case of Powerlink, however, SDG&E has refused to provide any guarantees to the CPUC that any portion of the power transmitted through Powerlink lines would be from renewable resources, although the utility is negotiating to receive power from proposed wind and solar farms. Absent guarantees, however, critics contend that all power from Powerlink may well originate from fossil fuel plants in Mexico.

 

ARGUMENTS FOR GOING GREEN-BUT AT WHAT SCALE? "Hard decisions and compromises will be required to resolve the problems our country presently faces," said George Coladonato, a Boulevard property owner. "It is imperative that new well-paying jobs be created, that we become energy independent and that we continue to clean our water and air. The administrations dedicated goal of green energy generation is courageous, addresses these issues and will provide the needed resources."

 

He called for removal of restrictions on individuals who wish to invest in and develop energy and technologies, suggesting that the government should "pay them for their efforts and contributions." He added, "A feed in tariff can be win-win but the monopoly utilities and their lobbyists have gamed the system to stifle innovation and competition. They have the economic incentives to build huge marginally needed transmission lines to supply urban centers from large remote sites. Change the economic incentives and the technology that is available for distributed generation will flourish," he said, noting that distributed generation is "counter to the goals of monopoly utilities. Nothing is free," added Coladonato, who has advocated a controversial wind project locally. "Some rural character will be changed, but the status quo will not solve our problems."

 

Citizens in Julian are now aspiring to create their own local power generation using small-scale wind and solar, with a goal of going off-grid completely. They will host a March 21 event to unveil their ambitious plans. (Details: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=node/702 )

 

"Our aim is to get 200 homes self-sustaining, meaning they are not tied into the power grid, because if you are tied into the grid you are vulnerable to the utilities," said Jeanette Hartman, who is creating a nonprofit called From the Ground up dedicated to sustainability for her community. "We don't want to be vulnerable to them anymore. They are threatening to turn our power off during high winds, because they don't want to be responsible for fires caused by downed power lines."

 

DEBATE OVER SDG&E SHUT-OFF PROPOSAL CONTINUES SDG&E has proposed to shut off power when the National Weather Service declaring a red-flag warning, humidity is low, and winds speeds exceed 34 mph or are gusting over 54 mph. An estimated 60,000 of SDG&E's 1.4 million customers could be affected. SDG&E will provide up to $250 per household to low-income customers and special-needs customers who experience an emergency power shut-off. The utility also says that it is working with disabled customers.

 

But at yesterday's hearing, backcountry residents called on the CPUC to require the utility to underground power lines, trim tree branches and take other proactive steps to lessen fire danger instead of shutting off power. East County Magazine Editor Miriam Raftery also testified, noting that shutting off power during dry, windy conditions would prevent some backcountry residents from receiving ECM's wildfire alerts via e-mail. In an e-mail to East County Magazine, electrical transmission specialist Ed Clark wrote, "We must ask ourselves why no other public utility feels the need to shut off power during these conditions." Clark has presented evidence to the CPUC that he believes indicates SDG&E is responsible for more fires than the utility has previously been linked to, including the 2007 Witch Fire, as ECM has previously reported.(See details at http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=456_whistleblower.) SDG&E has denied Clark's allegations. Additional hearings on SDG&E's power-shutoff proposal are scheduled for April 7 at the Alpine Community Center in Alpine and April 8 at Harrah's Rincon Casino in Valley Center.