The Sunrise Powerlink gleamed for the first time in Sempra Energy’s eye on November 1, 2002. At the company’s San Diego headquarters, an energy-management expert from Shell Trading gave a PowerPoint presentation highlighting the potential transmission line. Nameless at first, the new line would run from the Imperial Valley, near the Mexican border, to Rainbow, northeast of Fallbrook.
According to the presentation that day, the transmission line would have two major advantages. It would connect the Southern California electricity grid to potential geothermal, wind, and solar energy sources in the Imperial Valley. And the line would be able to transmit power from two power generation plants in Mexicali.
The plan counted for its northern terminus on a new substation in Rainbow. The substation had already figured into another transmission project, proposed by the San Diego Gas & Electric Company as a way to link with Southern California Edison lines near Perris in Riverside County. But residents of southwestern Riverside County were fighting the plan vigorously. In 2003, the California Public Utilities Commission rejected that project and with it the Rainbow substation.
Today, SDG&E, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, touts a new 150-mile Sunrise Powerlink as the way to “keep the lights on in San Diego,” using largely solar power from the Imperial Valley, and to lower ratepayers’ costs at the same time. The project’s current estimated cost is $1.5 billion. The line would run from near the Mexican border through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to a substation near the west end of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve.
Sunrise has also been SDG&E’s solution to a 2006 California state law requiring investor-owned utilities to obtain at least 20 percent of their electricity from solar, wind, or geothermal sources by 2010.
A key component in the plan is the utility’s contract with Stirling Energy Systems, a Phoenix company, to use its solar dish technology to produce the needed power. Critics note that to date only 7 prototypes of the technology have been manufactured. Stirling says it will need 12,000 dishes. Recently, however, an Irish company has agreed to invest $100 million in Stirling.
An enormous amount of newspaper reportage has been devoted to the project so far. But the drip, drip, drip of stories detailing ever-new aspects of a growing Sunrise controversy makes it difficult to assess the project as a whole. Is Sunrise needed “to keep the lights on,” as SDG&E claims? How much would it lower ratepayer costs, if at all? How soon could the powerlink deliver green energy? Can the damage Sunrise would cause the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and other wild areas be justified? And would the powerlink add dangerous new fire risks to San Diego’s backcountry?
How to Build Public Support
San Diego Gas & Electric often complains that San Diego has only one major connection to the California electricity grid. That is the 500-kilovolt Southwest Powerlink, running from Imperial Valley near and parallel to Interstate 8 to the Mount Miguel substation.
Having lost its bid in 2003 to link with the Southern California Edison grid, SDG&E began to contemplate another approach. A fear of blackouts was still in the air from the California energy crisis of 2000/2001. On December 13, 2004, the public relations firm Southwest Strategies LLC moderated a focus-group conversation for SDG&E. In a memo to several SDG&E representatives three weeks later, Southwest principals Alan Ziegaus and Chris Wahl described the meeting. “The purpose of the discussion,” they wrote in a printed summary, “was to gather input from trusted SDG&E allies about the company’s plans to build a major new transmission line in San Diego County.”
The session is worth a detailed look, since it shows how SDG&E determined a course of convincing the public of the need for the Sunrise Powerlink.
Eleven “opinion leaders” came to the two-hour discussion. They included San Diego City Council members Jim Madaffer and Michael Zucchet, Erik Bruvold of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, the Sycuan Resort’s Adam Day, Jerry Butkiewicz of the San Diego–Imperial Counties Labor Council, Mitch Mitchell of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council’s Kris Hartnett.
The first two questions Southwest Strategies raised in the meeting centered on coming challenges, especially in light of the California electric power crisis of 2000/2001. “There was near-unanimous consensus,” stated the Southwest Strategies memo, “that little progress has been made…to help avoid another energy crisis.” Energy independence and local control over energy were high priorities in the group. And “clearly, the group views building new power plants as the best way to achieve independence.”
Participants then listened to Dave Geier, SDG&E’s vice president for electric transmission and distribution, present the company’s “Long-Term Resource Plan.” This was their first hint that SDG&E might be planning new long-distance transmission lines. The subsequent discussion centered on ways SDG&E could improve power reliability. According to the Southwest Strategies analysis, participants revealed again the conviction that new local power plants could solve San Diego’s energy dilemmas. And it showed little faith in more transmission lines. In the words of Kris Hartnett, “You can build all the transmission lines you want, but until you generate more power, you’ve done nothing to solve the customer’s problem.”
Nevertheless, after a lamentation about the rejection of SDG&E’s attempt to link with Southern California Edison, the moderator next sought participants’ “thoughts about what SDG&E could have done differently in order to be successful.” The prevailing answer: SDG&E “needed to provide clearer reasons why the project was needed.” Michael Zucchet, however, gave a blunter assessment. “He suggested,” according to the meeting summary, “that the company dishonestly attempted to position the line as an environmentally beneficial project when no such benefits existed.”
Next question: “At some point in the near future, SDG&E will again pursue the licensing and construction of a new transmission line.” Could the group suggest ways to “build support for such a project”? In response, participants “strongly advocated that SDG&E should engage in a comprehensive public education campaign about why a new line is so important.”