What began as a local backcountry struggle over San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposed Sunrise Powerlink is now a national issue, one that opponents of the project hope will challenge a key energy strategy of the Obama administration.
The national scope was underscored earlier this month when the Sunrise opponents applauded the U.S. Senate’s action to hold up the nomination of David J. Hayes as deputy secretary of the Interior Department, the agency’s second-highest post.
No matter that the Hayes appointment was blocked by senators seeking to punish Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who has angered them by suspending 77 oil and gas drilling leases near national parks granted in the last days of the Bush administration. And no matter that last week, some of the same senators dropped their opposition and voted for Hayes to be confirmed, after Salazar agreed to review the lease suspensions. Sunrise opponents, for their part, wanted Hayes blocked because he is a former lobbyist for San Diego Gas & Electric and he lobbied for the utility during the period it was pressing hard on transmission projects.
The utility calls Sunrise a “poster child” for renewable-energy strategy, one that other utilities are embracing but that grassroots activists consider misguided.
The issue boils down to where the priorities will lie in developing clean renewable energy: Will the nation build a vast and expensive new network of transmission lines like Sunrise to reach remotely sited energy projects, with much of that infrastructure to be built on heretofore pristine federal lands?
Or will the United States emphasize the development of so-called distributed generation, which consists of rooftop solar and small wind farms close to cities, along with energy-efficiency programs to reach environmental targets and slow global warming?
The Obama administration is placing its bet on the former — long new power lines and big renewable projects on remote lands. The administration has also reportedly elevated Sunrise to key project status, according to a representative of San Diego Gas & Electric. And Obama is allocating billions from the stimulus package for “smart grid” development, which many fear involves building a larger transmission system that will reach into previously undeveloped areas.
“The secretaries of Energy, Interior, and Agriculture, which are three key agencies, together all told us that Sunrise is on the top of the agenda for each of those agencies and that the White House [wants the project],” Laura McDonald, a project director for San Diego Gas & Electric, said in a recent webcast.
Sunrise would stretch from the heart of San Diego County out to Imperial Valley, where San Diego Gas & Electric says the $2 billion transmission line will connect with renewable-energy projects that will be built in coming years. Once in place, the utility says the new line will improve electric reliability by providing a new path to import power to the city. After a three-year-long proceeding, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the project late last year, and now it awaits an approval from the U.S. Forest Service.
Opponents are asking the commission to reconsider its approval of the line but expect little from that process and are raising money for a court fight based on what they maintain was the commission’s disregard for facts developed in the lengthy proceeding. They argue that the line is too expensive, would significantly raise fire hazards, and would do other environmental damage. They also argue that running a lengthy power line through fire-prone backcountry would diminish rather than improve the region’s energy security.
Then there is the matter of who controls the generation of electricity, say Sunrise opponents.
“Everybody understands that if you can put solar panels on rooftops around the country, you would have independence from the likes of SDG&E,” said Diane Conklin, a spokesperson for the Mussey Grade Road, a member of the coalition opposing Sunrise, who has also opposed Hayes’s nomination. “It may not happen immediately, but it will happen over time. They want us tethered to their monopolies.”
In addition, many Sunrise opponents say SDG&E actually wants the new power line to complete an energy system based upon liquefied natural gas — which is not a renewable-energy source — that Sempra plans to import from abroad through a new terminal it constructed along the coast in Baja California, just north of Ensenada. The gas would be piped to generating plants along the border, where it would be burned to produce electricity. Sunrise would allow wider distribution of that electricity throughout California, opponents argue.
Because of the role federal lands could play in projects around the country similar to Sunrise, the nomination of Hayes to the Interior Department has become a flash point. The department manages 500 million acres, or about one-fifth of all land within the United States.
Hayes first caused local concern when he was named a member of the Obama transition team, charged with overseeing appointments to energy, interior, environmental, and agricultural posts. The transition appointment sparked a protest letter from Bill Powers, a local engineer who has played a prominent role in opposing Sunrise and who authored a report building the case for a vast rooftop solar program, instead of the transmission line.
“It is extremely disappointing that Sempra and SDG&E get the inside track in the new administration when so many involved in the Obama campaign have worked to get a new future for energy policy,” said Powers. “Meet the new boss — same as the old boss. This is not what I scraped the bottom to get from a new administration. The Hayes appointment means that SDG&E and Sempra have their [former] lobbyist as head of day-to-day operations at the Interior Department, and that is bad news for opponents of the Sunrise Powerlink.”
Powers and others note that Hayes, as a member of the Latham & Watkins law firm, lobbied for SDG&E during a period when the utility pressed hard for expanded federal powers to site power lines. These expanded powers allow the federal government to usurp the state regulators to make decisions about the approval or rejection of proposed transmission lines.