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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.”

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Comments

paul May 28, 2008 @ 2:13 p.m.

From http://kdfuller.blogspot.com/2008/04/stirling-energy-systems-and-sunrise.html

consider the testimony of Barry Butler, a PhD expert in Stirling solar technology who concluded:

“Major reliability problems with the SAIC Stirling engine included hydrogen leakage through joints and seals, internal engine seal leakage, swashplate actuator stalls, and heater head braze joint hydrogen leaks. That means that on average once every 40 hours a problem of some type required shut down and maintenance. Nearly continuous maintenance was necessary to keep the system “available” to generate electricity. … The commercial viability of the Stirling system is unproven at this time. …there is no possible way that dish/Stirling solar can move from high cost prototype models with substantive reliability concerns to large-scale production of high reliability low-cost commercial models by 2008 and full operation of a 12,000 dish, 300 MW array by the end of 2010.”

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paul May 28, 2008 @ 2:31 p.m.

$1.5 billion in solar panels at $3.5/watt listed by SCE would install 428 megawatts of capacity onto San Diego rooftops. Why in the world are we the worst in the state when it comes to SDG&E encouraging solar panels, when we are in the best geographical position in the state to use them?

Between state and federal incentive programs, long-term leases on panels and the savings in not buying new power plants, another 500 megawatts could easily be installed. That would add close to 1,000 megawatts of power right were it is needed without a single new power plant being built and without using any additional fuel to run them for the next 20-30 years.

Consider also what the existing SDG&E powerlines in the backcountry have cost us by starting huge fires burning thousands of homes. There was a 100+ acre fire in Penasquitos canyon last month that started under power lines very near where the Sunrise Powerlink is proposed to terminate. I never heard a peep on what caused the fire other than "it started under power lines on a hot and windy day". I am guessing that if there was another cause of the fire, SDG&E would have let us know.

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mshames May 28, 2008 @ 8:36 p.m.

Here's the latest scoop on SDG&E's profits from this project: if the project is approved by the Public Utilities Commission, SDG&E stands to reap $1.3203 billion. Because of the nature of FERC ratemaking, that $1.32 billion is strongly front-loaded. More than half of the $1.32 billion profit to SDG&E shareholders occurs in the first 8½ years of the project’s 58 year life, from mid-2011 through the end of 2019.

So you do the math.........does SDG&E walk away from the largest, most lucrative project that it is has ever built? Not a chance.

Check out the UCAN web page (www.ucan.org) on May 30th and you'll see how this project is a huge money-loser, isn't needed to keep the lights on and only about 25% of the line's capacity will be used to bring renewable power into San Diego.....all based upon SDG&E's own numbers!)

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Geoffrey May 28, 2008 @ 11:06 p.m.

Dave Hogan clearly points out the very significant consequences of running utility infrastructure through our public lands. Kudos to him for those observations. Add to the plant, animal, and human costs of such abuse of these lands that the proposed power line would cause: Thousands of acres of existing and proposed federal wilderness lands, currently pending in the US Congress as S.493 (Boxer) and H.R.860 (Solis), 'The California Wild Heritage Act'. Some of the wild and remote places in the San Diego back country included in this bill are:

Eagle Peak Complex Wilderness proposal – 24,488 acres Hauser Wilderness Additions proposal – 7,604 acres Sawtooth Mountains Wilderness Additions proposal – 6,518 acres Carrizo Gorge Wilderness Addition proposal – 6,508 acres Pine Creek Wilderness Addition Adjustment proposal – 214 acres San Diego Wild and Scenic River proposal – 9 miles long Cedar Creek Wild and Scenic River proposal – 6 miles long Pine Valley Creek Wild and Scenic River proposal – 7.5 miles long

Each of the proposed wire allignments would directly or indirectly impact one or many of these special places. Do we want to leave a legacy of designated federal wilderness lands for future generations -- with our apologies? "We are sorry, children, that the solitude and pristine wilderness qualities of these national heritage lands are now compromised because the greed of a few overpowered the sanctity of our national wilderness heritage."

I don't believe we should have to make those apologies. Keep the wilderness wild. Let's generate our power in-basin, and let's talk about conservation. For the sake of wilderness.

More: http://www.wilderness4all.org

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Fred Williams May 29, 2008 @ 6:25 a.m.

How many former Enron employees are now at Sempra?

How much money has Sempra given to politicians, local, state, national?

If I recall correctly, Sempra is one of the biggest backers of Prop. C. That's the proposition on next week's ballot that would take away any chance of having an independent auditor in San Diego...the fox guarding the henhouse. Didn't they also give a lot of money to the Mayor's campaign slush fund?

Now, why would an honest, upright, public-spirited bunch of people like Enr...oops...Sempra give so much campaign money? Could it be so they can get people like Jim Madaffer to do their dirty work for them, as shown in this article? Could it be so that our Mayor for Sale Sanders would look the other way while San Diego looses it's chance for real energy security?

Sorry, Sempra. Your KPBS commercials of little girls talking about renewable energy doesn't fool us a bit. You're a greedy manipulative trading house that will take money even at the cost of destroying the future prospects of this region.

Time for some pickets and rotten eggs at your downtown office tower.

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dgarmon May 30, 2008 @ 12:32 a.m.

As someone who has been deeply involved with this issue since going to court in 2007 to oppose SDG&E's "pre-condemnation surveys" on my property in Borrego Springs, I am grateful for the clear, concise, and comprehensive reporting done in this article. The issue is really a simple one: Sempra has a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders to make as much money as possible. No matter how hard Sempra tries to deny it, "greenwash" it, dress it up, and claim it isn't so, the simple fact is Sempra's fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders is in conflict with the greater good of our community. The greater good is served by in-basin, distributed generation that will be cheaper, more reliable, greener, will not cause wildfires, and will leave the treasures of our backcountry intact for future generations. It is time for the Governor's office to be inundated with calls, letters, and e-mail from citizens who would like to see San Diego make the right decision on this critically important issue.

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surfponto May 29, 2008 @ 8:26 p.m.

One of the better articles I have read on all the shortcomings of SDG&E's Sunrise PowerLink.

I think we have to ask ourselves do we want to line SDG&E's pockets with profits from an archaic technology or do we truly want a smarter energy solution ?

Anza Borrego Desert State Park and the San Diego back country are precious resources that are unlike any in the world. We need to defeat this proposal and protect these areas. Bob

http://www.anzaborrego.net

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seahorse May 31, 2008 @ 7:29 p.m.

Wow. This article really opened my eyes.

The opposition has done such a poor job of bringing this to light. They have bumper stickers that say save Anza Borego. That doesn't really help people know how much of a scam this. A lot of people simply don't care or think it is a necessary loss and do think the opposition is just about enviro nuts.

How about sending the message that this is the next Enron scam. A lot of politicians have supported this, maybe it is time to start knocking on their doors and getting them to change their position. Don't start with the Governor, start with the locals and work up.

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MURPHYJUNK June 14, 2008 @ 10:02 a.m.

“Will These Keep the Lights On?”

Seems to me, they could use all the towers they already have, just use thicker wire, or add more wires?

maybe too simple an solution ( or maybe "someone" will not profit from it.

I live in lakeside, and see towers side by side going over the hills in both directions, does not make sense to me.

Mike

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