SACRAMENTO — Regulators gave a San Diego utility the go-ahead Thursday to build a $1.9-billion transmission line that it says is needed to move nonpolluting geothermal, wind and solar power from inland deserts to energy-hungry coastal cities.
The California Public Utilities Commission, meeting in San Francisco, voted 4-1 to approve a proposed decision by President Michael Peevey to allow San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to use ratepayer funds to string 123 miles of new high-voltage lines. Massive steel towers would carry the electricity from Imperial County through environmentally sensitive areas of the San Diego County backcountry and the Cleveland National Forest.
The commission's lone dissenter, Dian Grueneich, couldn't persuade her colleagues to support an alternative decision. It would have authorized the line, known as the Sunrise Powerlink, but only if SDG&E, a unit of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, complied with strict requirements that it be filled with electrons from "green" sources.
Once operational, the line will play "a critical role in California's efforts to achieve energy independence" and help the state meet its goal to generate a third of its power from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2020, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.
Developers, who want to invest millions of dollars in power plants to generate alternative energy, say they won't be able to secure financing without a commitment from the state that the line will be available to carry their electricity to market.
The Sunrise plan, which has been before the commission for three years, has solid backing from state, local and ethnic chambers of commerce, many San Diego County governments and labor unions. But it has garnered equally strong opposition from environmental groups, consumer advocates and rural communities that lie along the line's path, roughly paralleling the U.S.-Mexico border.
Opponents, who denounce Sunrise as too costly and unneeded, vow to file lawsuits challenging the Public Utility Commission's decision.
"The commissioners issued a $2-billion, politically driven decision today that disregarded the facts," said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers Action Network. "It will be up to the appellate courts to force the PUC to face the facts that make the Sunrise project a whopping Christmas present for Sempra but a lump of coal for all of the state's ratepayers."
Other Sunrise foes said the commission's decision could have been worse for the environment if SDG&E's initial power line route had been approved. The utility originally wanted to run the line through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a vast preserve that spans portions of Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties, considered a jewel of the California system.
In the face of criticism from the Sierra Club and the California Parks Foundation, SDG&E recently dropped the Anza-Borrego route and embraced a more costly path farther south.
In October, the utility came out on the losing end of an administrative law judge's proposed decision that the line wasn't needed to satisfy San Diego County's short-term power requirements.
Commissioner Grueneich, a veteran environmental activist, offered SDG&E a compromise: The company could build on the southern route if it could provide the PUC with a firm, legal commitment that the line's 1,000 megawatts of capacity would be filled completely with energy from renewable, nonpolluting sources.
Grueneich said she feared that the company would use Sunrise to carry electricity produced by coal or natural-gas-fired power plants in other states or nearby Baja California, Mexico.
Both SDG&E and Peevey, who authored his own, ultimately successful proposed decision, countered that Grueneich's conditions could prove too burdensome to the utility and its alternative energy suppliers.
The commission, Peevey said, would monitor SDG&E to make sure it lives up to a nonbinding promise to send no coal-based electricity through the Sunrise line. The company also said it would meet the state's 33% alternative energy goal by the 2020 deadline.
"I fully expect the company to follow through on its commitments," Peevey said.
But SDG&E's word wasn't good enough for Grueneich.
"We have an obligation to ensure that San Diego Gas & Electric's ratepayers and not just its shareholders see a return on their investment," she said.
"I am not willing to risk $2 billion in ratepayer money to the invisible hand of the market."