Fire danger of Powerlink debated - Experts testify about safety risks
Union Tribune (2008-04-09) JHarry Jones
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By JHarry Jones
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
April 9, 2008
The chance that SDG&E's proposed Sunrise Powerlink project might pose a fire risk in the backcountry was the subject of rebuttal testimony yesterday in hearings being held this week in San Diego by the state Public Utilities Commission.
Experts for and against the 150-mile, 500-kilovolt transmission line have given radically different testimony about the possibility that it could pose a fire danger.
San Diego Gas & Electric's experts have said such large lines rarely have been the source of fires, and that it is the much smaller feeder lines that have sparked blazes.
said last year that three of October's fires were caused by power lines, but have released little additional information. There are only smaller power lines, however, in the areas where the Witch Creek, Rice Canyon and Guejito fires began.
Hal Mortier, an expert hired by SDG&E, testified that major transmission lines offer negligible risks because they are much larger and built to withstand high winds.
He conceded that two small fires were started beneath a 230-kilovolt line on Camp Pendleton within the past two years. Much of the Sunrise line would consist of dual 230-kilovolt lines once it extends from the desert into North County's backcountry, if the commission approves SDG&E's preferred route.
Joseph Mitchell, who prepared a report about fire dangers for an opposition group known as the Mussey Grade Road Alliance, testified that since at least two fires have been known to have started beneath a large line, it only makes sense that the possibility exists of a catastrophic fire being caused by the Powerlink.
Unrelated to the hearing, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 yesterday to endorse the $1.5 billion project, which would start in the Imperial Valley and run nearly to San Diego's coast. It was the first time the board has taken a position on the controversial line.
SDG&E says the line is needed to link proposed renewable-energy projects, like huge solar and geothermal fields in the Imperial Valley, to the energy grid.
Also yesterday, several South Bay elected officials held a news conference to announce their support of the project. They are concerned about an alternative presented to the commission that would scrap the Powerlink in favor of building power plants in the county.
“I have been told by the state's power grid operator that the South Bay Power Plant can only be removed if certain conditions are met; one of them being the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink,” Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox said. “Dismantling the South Bay Power Plant is important to Chula Vista.” After a session today, the hearings will continue in San Francisco through May 8.
In June, Administrative Law Judge Steven Weissman is expected to make a recommendation to the commission whether the project should be approved. The commission is expected to vote in August or September.
Weissman said yesterday that two additional public-participation hearings will be held May 12 in Borrego Springs at the request of several commissioners who want to hear from supporters and opponents personally.