Questions raised about Sunrise Powerlink's green power
Powerlink critic questions utility's green promise
Hearing continues through Wednesday on SDG&E power line proposal
By DAVE DOWNEY
North County Times Staff Writer
SAN DIEGO ---- San Diego Gas & Electric's Sunrise Powerlink project is unlikely to deliver on its promise of providing a substantial amount of "green" electricity, the head of a consumer advocacy group suggested during a public hearing Monday.
The utility's chief operating officer, Michael Niggli, acknowledged it's possible the line could deliver more fossil-fuel-generated electricity than green power. But Niggli said such a scenario is unlikely, given the state's move toward clean, so-called renewable energy.
Niggli's comment came as he was being questioned by Michael Shames, executive director and attorney for the Utility Consumers' Action Network. Shames was allowed to question Niggli on behalf of ratepayers.
The utility has said repeatedly that the $1.5 billion power line is crucial if the company is to comply with a statewide mandate that California's major urban power providers secure 20 percent of their electricity supplies from sun, wind and geothermal power by 2010.
Niggli said the utility expects Sunrise Powerlink to put the company over the 20 percent goal, even though the company's green-power proportion had reached just 5.2 percent by last year.
Because of project delays, the controversial line could not be up and running until 2011 at the earliest, so the 2010 goal is not doable, he said. But Niggli said the utility could reach that threshold soon after the line was turned on.
Administrative Law Judge Steve Weissman, who is presiding over the hearing, wanted to know what the company has been doing to boost its green supply. Niggli said it has been asking entrepreneurs to propose solar, geothermal and other projects.
"The image I get is of a passive process," Weissman said.
Other utilities are building green projects on their own, Weissman said. He cited a Southern California Edison project to lease space on the rooftops of warehouses in San Bernardino County to build the equivalent of a 250-megawatt power plant through solar panels.
Niggli said SDG&E wished Edison well, but local utility officials don't believe it is practical to replicate the rooftop project locally because San Diego County has fewer warehouses.
The public hearing before the California Public Utilities Commission continues through Wednesday at the California Center for Sustainable Energy's office in San Diego. The commission is gathering evidence to help it decide this summer whether to license the project.
If the line is rejected, the utility would have the option of asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve it. The federal government has the authority to overrule a state decision because Southern California, including San Diego County, has been declared an electric transmission corridor of national interest.
In attempting to plant doubts about the line's future use, Shames asked Niggli whether importing green energy was one of the original purposes of the region's only existing 500-kilovolt line, the Southwest Powerlink, which runs parallel to Interstate 8. Niggli acknowledged that was the case.
In the early days of the Southwest line, Niggli, said, a significant chunk of electricity from geothermal sources in the Imperial Valley and Mexico was transported to San Diego County over the line ---- up to 220 megawatts at a time. But today, 24 years later, he said, a small fraction of that is brought in from geothermal energy produced by hot underground geysers.
By comparison, the Sunrise project would deliver 1,000 megawatts, or 20 percent of the region's current supply.
Given that Southwest Powerlink brings mostly other types of energy into San Diego County, Shames suggested the same result could happen with Sunrise ---- 24 years from now little green power might come across its 500-kilovolt wires. He asked Niggli whether SDG&E would guarantee the delivery of clean, so-called renewable power.
"There are no such guarantees that we can give," Niggli said. "It's an open access system." He said the California Independent System Operator, which operates state's electrical grid, would control what type of power is moved on the line.
Given the state's desire to use much more green power than now, in the wake of growing concerns about global warming, Niggli said it is unlikely the line would be filled with electricity generated by natural gas or coal.
Niggli also dismissed a frequent suggestion of project opponents that the line would carry electricity from expanded natural gas-fired plants just across the border from El Centro near Mexicali.
"That is not on anyone's planning horizon," Niggli said.
The line, strung from metal towers 160 feet tall, would run from El Centro to Carmel Valley, meandering through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Ramona and Rancho Penasquitos.
As for an environmental study's conclusion that those towers pose a threat to desert bighorn sheep in Anza-Borrego, Niggli said the company disagrees.
"We have many, many instances where sheep graze under lines, under towers. It doesn't seem to have any impact on them," he said.
Contact staff writer Dave Downey at (760) 745-6611, Ext. 2623, or firstname.lastname@example.org.