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Sunrise Powerlink Renewable Electricity Transmission Line, CA

STATUS: In progress, with opposition

TYPE: Geothermal

OPPOSITION: A wide range of NGOs, including national groups Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity, and local groups Desert Protective Council and East County Community Action Coalition.


BACKGROUND: San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has proposed a 1,000-megawatt line from the geothermal energy sources in California's Imperial Valley to the San Diego metropolitan area.  The 119-mile, $1.9 billion high-voltage line is needed by SDG&E to meet the state's mandate of 20-percent and 33-percent renewable electricity in 2010 and by 2020, respectively.  The project is subject to review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and National Environment Policy ACT (NEPA).  Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger strongly supported the Sunrise Powerlink project.

According to the Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee, the origins of opposition to the Sunrise Powerlink project date back to the early 1980s, when San Diego community groups battled another transmission line project—the Southwest Powerlink.  In 2001, SDG&E attempted to build the Valley-Rainbow transmission line on much of the same land; however, in 2003, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) blocked the project by a 3-2 vote.

Formal applications for the current Sunrise Powerlink project were submitted to the CPUC in December 2005 and August 2006.  The CPUC approved the Sunrise project in December 2008. Environmental group Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) then sued in the California State Supreme Court, charging the CPUC with violating environmental law when it approved the project. 

In September 2010, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the CPUC approved changes submitted by SDG&E to mitigate potential environment harms.  Rather than carve out paths in areas without roads, SDG&E purchased a $38 million heavy-lift helicopter to place more than half of the required transmission towers.  The agencies also said that further environment review was not necessary. 

On July 13, 2010, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) issued a positive Record of Decision, allowing the project to go through a 19-mile route in the Cleveland National Forest.  Opposition groups, such as the East County Community Action Coalition, pledged to launch legal challenges to this permitting decision.  As required by federal law, there was a 45-day public appeal process and 45-day resolution of appeals period.  Twelve administrative appeals were filed.  On October 15, 2010, the USFS announced that it had resolved the administrative appeals and affirmed its July decision.  On November 4, 2010, the decision became final.  However, before project work can be conducted in national forest land, a Special Use Permit and appropriate Notice(s) to Proceed still must be issued.

SDG&E scheduled a December 2010 groundbreaking ceremony in Alpine, CA, marking the first construction of a segment of the Sunrise Powerlink project.   

There are still pending legal challenges to the Sunrise Powerlink project in the California Supreme Court and in the San Diego federal court.  Opponents of the project argue that the renewable energy claim is just a smokescreen for SDG&E, and that the company really intends to use the new lines to transport electricity from its natural gas power plants in Mexico to the United States.  Additionally, the opponents have raised concerns about the cost of the project as well as the aesthetics, effect on local businesses, impact on the environment, and public safety along the line’s path.  Instead, the opposition would rather focus on upgrading the existing grid, increasing energy conservation, and building renewable plants closer to population centers.

SOURCES: Sunrise Powerlink: http://www.sdge.com/sunrisepowerlink;
CPUC Sunrise Powerlink: http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/environment/info/aspen/sunrise/sunrise.htm;
The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/science/earth/28transmission.html;
Energy & Environment News ClimateWire: http://www.eenews.net/climatewire/2009/01/22/archive/4?terms=sunrise+powerlink;
Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee: http://www.desertreport.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/DR_Summer20081.pdf;
San Diego Union-Tribune:http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/sep/23/sunrise-powerlink-protest-planned-for-lakeside/; http://www.sognonsandiego.com/news/2010/dec/03/sunrise-powerlink-breaking-ground-next-week/;
Desert Protective Council: http://dpcinc.org/index.php/site/archives/category/sunrise_powerlink/

Last Updated:  December 7, 2010