REGION: Stage set for southern power line
North County Times (2008-10-30) By DAVE DOWNEY - Staff Writer
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By DAVE DOWNEY - Staff Writer
The curtain is expected to rise Friday on the long-awaited proposed decision on San Diego Gas & Electric Co.'s controversial $1.5 billion Sunrise power line.
And observers say the stage is set for an alternate southern San Diego County route to be recommended by California Public Utilities Commission Administrative Law Judge Jean Vieth.
SDG&E officials long have preferred a 150-mile route that would wind through 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the nation's largest state park outside of Alaska, as well as through Ranchita, Santa Ysabel, Ramona and Rancho Penasquitos.
Now word on the street is the alternate route will be selected because of overwhelming political opposition to putting 160-foot-high metal towers across a wilderness known for its dramatic panoramic views, colorful spring wildflowers and endangered bighorn sheep.
"If the CPUC selects the southern route for Sunrise (Powerlink), it's a buildable route we can support," said Jennifer Briscoe, a spokeswoman for SDG&E, in a telephone interview Wednesday. "We realize that there was a great deal of sensitivity around the park."
Besides the park, the alternate route would pass to the south of North County's backcountry communities. And Briscoe said the 123-mile southern line would stop short of Rancho Penasquitos.
Whatever the administrative law judge chooses, it will be a recommendation. It will be up to the five-member Public Utilities Commission to decide the project's fate.
Commissioners are scheduled to hear arguments from the utility and project opponents Nov. 7 in San Francisco, and to deliver a decision in December. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is expected to decide by January whether to let SDG&E cross federal land.
"My sense is that the commission is not inclined to reject the line outright, given the governor's support for the project," said Michael Shames, executive director for the Utility Consumers' Action Network, a San Diego consumer advocacy group that has been arguing the line would be too costly. "But it seems SDG&E has conceded that the CPUC will not approve a line through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park."
Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said that while the governor believes the line is needed to provide access to desert solar and wind power, "he has said he doesn't want it to go through the park if that can be avoided."
As a result, said Diana Lindsay, vice president of environmental affairs for the Anza-Borrego Foundation & Institute, "I think they (utility officials) are finally running scared. ... They'll take anything they can get."
Briscoe said the utility, however, has not abandoned the northern route. Rather, SDG&E is now willing to build a line to the south because the initial southern route was modified by the commission staff at the utility's request, she said.
SDG&E long opposed a southern route, saying it would torpedo a project goal of providing another conduit for electricity to travel to metropolitan San Diego many miles north of the existing Southwest Powerlink line that runs along the border. If the lines were next to each other, officials contended, both could be knocked out at the same time by a wildfire.
The company, which serves 1.4 million homes and businesses in San Diego County and southern Orange County, also objected to the southern route because, initially, it entailed crossing American Indian communities opposed to the line.
But Briscoe noted that the modified route would go around those reservations.
And according to the final environmental report published in October, the alternate route would follow the path of the Southwest Powerlink for 36 miles across a desert landscape not as prone to fire as the chaparral country to the west. Then the new Sunrise Powerlink would break to the north.
Crossing Interstate 8, the wires would be routed north around the Campo, La Posta and Manzanita reservations, and south around the Cleveland National Forest. It would follow Interstate 8 in parts of East County and run underground for 8.3 miles through the Alpine area.
The line would follow Highway 67 around San Vicente Reservoir before heading west to the Sycamore Canyon Substation in Scripps Ranch.
At a new substation east of Alpine, the line would convert from 500-kilovolt wires to ones that carry 230 kilovolts, something utility officials say is necessary to lay cables underground.
"If a southern route is recommended, or a nonwires alternative is recommended, we will be ecstatic," said Lindsay of the Anza-Borrego foundation.
Besides a southern route, the administrative judge is considering such alternatives as local natural gas-fired power plants and networks of rooftop solar panels. All of those options would be more friendly to the environment than would the northern route, according to the environmental report.
A southern route also would be good news for rural North County, Shames said.
But that wouldn't put Donna Murdoch, who lives in the San Diego Country Estates area near Ramona, at ease.
"Don't get me wrong, I don't want it near me," Murdoch said. "But I don't want it near anybody else, either. And I don't trust anything that SDG&E says. They still prefer the northern route. I won't trust a thing they say until the poles are in the ground." Contact staff writer Dave Downey at (760) 745-6611, Ext. 2623
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