SAN FRANCISCO – Whether San Diego Gas & Electric Co. should build a massive power line into the Imperial Valley goes to the heart of a debate that's gripping California and the country as it works to wean itself from fossil fuels.
Is it better to rely on huge solar, wind and geothermal power plants far away or generate that power close to where it is needed?
The case involving the Sunrise Powerlink is part of a struggle “with fundamental issues of the utility of the future,” John Bohn, a member of the California Public Utilities Commission, said yesterday.
The commission could vote as early as Dec. 4 on whether to let SDG&E build a 123-mile, $1.7 billion power line through rural East County. It heard from both sides during a 2½ -hour hearing yesterday in San Francisco.
SDG&E says the line is needed to increase the reliability of the electric grid, bring electricity from renewable sources to San Diego and save ratepayers money.
Critics say that the line is ugly, unnecessary and costly, and that it's better to generate San Diego County's power locally.
“The sun does shine in San Diego just like it does in San Bernardino,” opponent Denis Trafecanty of Santa Ysabel said, noting that Southern California Edison is moving to put solar panels on warehouse roofs to the north.
Backcountry activist Diane Conklin of Ramona said the state's electricity customers shouldn't pay for a line that's not needed. “We are indeed on the cusp of change, and change that's good,” she said.
The commission is considering two proposed decisions in response to SDG&E's request to build the 1,000-megawatt line from the Imperial Valley to San Diego.
Both proposals, released last week, would reject the utility's preferred route through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, an idea SDG&E has now abandoned.
One proposal, by administrative law judges who coordinated years of testimony and reams of data, would reject the line altogether.
The other proposal, by a commissioner assigned to follow the case, would approve the line, but only on the condition that SDG&E prove how it plans to use it to bring in “substantial” amounts of clean power.
It was unclear from their comments yesterday whether commissioners would choose one of the proposals as they stand or amend them.
SDG&E Chief Executive Debra Reed told the commissioners that the utility is committed to obtaining renewable power but that the proposed conditions are a nonstarter.
If the line isn't approved, the big solar plants and wind farms that would provide its power won't be built, Reed said.
“This is the proverbial chicken-and-egg problem,” she said.
She said the utility is willing to forsake coal power, replace any renewable-energy contracts that fall through with new ones and work to ensure that one-third of its power comes from renewable sources by 2020.
But it can't agree to the terms offered by Commissioner Dian Grueneich, who proposed approving the line on the condition that SDG&E enter into a binding agreement to use it for renewable power.
“We would need to predict the future,” Reed said.
Today, SDG&E buys 6 percent of its power from renewable sources and has contracts for about 15 percent by 2010, when state law requires that electric companies use 20 percent.
Some of those contracts are contingent on Sunrise being built, she said.
Reed also sharply disagreed with both proposed decisions' conclusion that San Diego won't face an energy shortage before 2014 and that Sunrise would cost $1.7 billion.
Grueneich tried to pin Reed down on how to ensure that the line, if built, would be used to bring renewable electricity to San Diego.
Twice she asked if the commitments Reed was ready to make would ensure that Sunrise would carry power “substantially” from solar, wind or geothermal sources.
Reed didn't answer directly. Grueneich finally left the question for a meeting she has scheduled for next week.
The power line is needed now to make sure electricity can be moved around the state reliably, said Yakout Mansour, chief executive of the California Independent System Operator, which runs the state's electric grid.
Like Reed, he rejected the conclusions reached in the proposed decisions about when San Diego might face an energy shortage.
“Time is of the essence, the case is urgent, the state needs infrastructure,” he told commissioners.
Opponents representing small communities, park lovers, environmental groups and a company proposing to store energy in a Riverside County water project asked the commission to reject Sunrise outright.
Then Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network, told commissioners that the arguments by SDG&E and the Independent System Operator sounded good but were built on shaky assumptions.
“They don't have their facts right,” Shames said. After dozens of meetings, economic studies, testimony by experts and an environmental impact report 11,000 pages long, there is enough information to reject the power line, he said.
As an example, he took on Reed's contention that developers of renewable energy would go elsewhere if Sunrise isn't built.
“It's not in the record,” Shames said. Instead, he said, there are other ways to get the power from Imperial County to San Diego.