Jerry Butkiewicz argued, according to the memo, that “elected officials might not support a new transmission line for fear they might be defeated at the polls.” And Michael Zucchet commented again “on the importance of being honest about the merits of a project.” But at this point, most participants seemed to have dropped their earlier resistance to transmission lines.
As the discussion wound down, several participants noted “that the public generally looks at new transmission lines unfavorably.” Therefore, SDG&E should “make a case that transmission lines improve reliability,” especially that they would “prevent potential outages during emergency situations.”
Finally, the decisive question was put. “Suppose you knew that SDG&E could meet the state’s renewables mandate by 2010…if it were able to construct a major new transmission line that could access hard to reach renewables.… Would you be more inclined to support [it]?” The most prevalent response was “Yes, but education is needed to connect the ideas.” The minority view: “No, because reliability is a more salient message.” An education program needed to emphasize safety and affordability too. But Butkiewicz observed that “pro-environment messages resonated with important target audiences.”
On the basis of the focus group, Southwest Strategies recommended to SDG&E, among other things, that the company craft a convincing message about increasing local control in San Diego. “Undoubtedly, the group believes that greater local control, through the construction of more power plants, by itself solves reliability issues.
“To address this misperception, SDG&E might consider educating the public and key leaders about how new transmission can also improve local control.” This should “help SDG&E reach its infrastructure goals more effectively.”
Opposition Groups Spring Up
Southwest Strategies suggested another tactic for making the Sunrise Powerlink sound reasonable to the public. SDG&E should include in its “public affairs plan” a “bottom up, or grass roots, approach.… This style of outreach would involve selling SDG&E’s Long-Term Resource Plan to community groups and activists who have influence with important elected officials. The [focus] group…suggested that elected officials might not support a new transmission line unless they believed ‘political cover’ existed to get behind such a project.”
Many politicians didn’t seem to worry about political cover, however. For example, San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders jumped on board Sunrise almost as soon as the proposal was announced, well before the start of the Public Utilities Commission process allowing ordinary citizens, concerned groups, and power-supply experts to be heard.
The Public Utilities review process consists of two phases. In Phase One, a single Public Utilities commissioner (there are five) holds “scoping” meetings, which are intended to allow public comment on what the commission should require a professional environmental inquiry to investigate about the proposed project. The commissioner assigned to the case and an administrative law judge then take testimony from SDG&E and “interveners.” (The commission grants intervener status to those it determines can provide technical, legal, or otherwise relevant information.) Phase Two comes after the environmental document has been written. (More about Phase Two below.)
The “grass roots” approach that Southwest Strategies suggested to SDG&E ran into much tougher sledding than the company’s apparent pitch to politicians. As soon as news got out about the Sunrise Powerlink, opposition groups sprung up along the line’s route. After leaving Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the route would go west through Grapevine Canyon, south of Warner Springs, through the Santa Ysabel Valley, south of Ramona, and through Rancho Peñasquitos. It would end at an existing substation near the west end of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, in San Diego’s Torrey Hills neighborhood. To date, there are at least nine opposition groups. Several of the community groups preexisted news of the Sunrise plan. But they have joined together in an umbrella organization called Communities United for Sensible Power.
Diane Conklin is president of the umbrella organization and of the Mussey Grade Road Alliance. Conklin lives with her husband near Kimball Valley, on the outskirts of Ramona. Conklin founded the Mussey Grade group in 1999 as a way to help protect the area. She feels that Sunrise is one of the greatest dangers her constituents face.
Conklin remembers reading about Sunrise for the first time in the Julian News in November 2005. “I learned later,” Conklin tells me, “that about that time SDG&E came to Ramona — it was really nefarious in my mind — to conduct little meetings, quietly, with people they considered to be opinion leaders. I believe they had to pay consultants a whole lot of money to tell them to hold these meetings and win over the hearts and minds of all these people, who are then going to sell the soap. I think they gathered together groups of 20 or so to sell the necessity of the transmission line, and they were also getting the people’s impressions.”
SDG&E filed its application for the Sunrise Powerlink with the Public Utilities Commission on December 14, 2005. Conklin says the company continued holding the meetings in Ramona, “but by that time people had caught on.”
On Tuesday, January 31, 2006, according to Conklin, approximately 500 to 700 local residents came to a prehearing conference at a Ramona school in the middle of the day. “People couldn’t even get into the room, it was so crowded,” she tells me. “That’s when SDG&E began to understand that they had a big fight on their hands. Here they marshaled all their forces, with all the smartest people they could find, and rolled out a battle plan. Most of the communities, of course, were caught by surprise, because the company was working it in a nonpublic way, so that they could get a toehold. But it didn’t work.
“Then Greystone Consulting had what I call ‘bazaars.’ It’s a very interesting technique. Instead of having one person before a roomful of people, where everybody hears the same thing at the same time and can ask questions, they would divide the issues to be answered into separate booths. People would go from booth to booth to get their information. But what most people did, because it’s the natural thing, most people went and tried to find out if the line affected their land. So they had a long line of people where the maps were being produced. I even did that. I went over to find out where it was in relation to my home and other homes in the Kimball Valley and Mussey Grade area. So you’re not getting the full information. It was almost as though Sunrise was a fait accompli, ‘but we’ll give you some information about how it’s going to affect you.’ In the long run, this didn’t work either, because people gradually began to understand that the line itself was not a good idea,” says Conklin.