San Diego Power Line Approval Opens Path to Renewable Energy Projects—But Opponents Vow to Keep Fighting

The U.S. Forest Service has approved San Diego Gas & Electric’s plan to build a high-voltage power line through a 19-mile stretch of the Cleveland National Forest, clearing the final hurdle the utility needed for construction to begin on a locally controversial project known as the Sunrise Powerlink. “The Forest Service’s decision to authorize the project provides future access to renewable energy, improves energy system reliability, and will reduce transmission congestion in the greater San Diego area,” Cleveland National Forest Supervisor Will Metz said in a statement today.

When completed in 2012, the $1.9 billion Sunrise Powerlink will connect San Diego’s regional power grid with at least 1,000 megawatts of power generated by solar farms and other renewable energy plants under development in the Imperial County desert, according to SDG&E. In a statement issued by the utility, CEO Jessie Knight Jr. says, “This project will access vast, untapped sources of renewable power for the people of San Diego County and help create a cleaner, more environmentally-responsible future for the region.”

One of the ironies of environmental opposition to the embattled Sunrise Powerlink was that SDG&E planned to use the 119-mile power line to connect to large-scale proposals for renewable energy. In opposing the high-voltage line over the past five years, a coalition of conservationists, consumer groups, rural property owners, and other opponents said they believed the utility planned to connect the power line to natural gas-fired power plants in Mexico instead of to solar, wind, and geothermal power being developed near El Centro, CA.

SDG&E map of Sunrise Powerlink Map (courtesty SDG&E)

SDG&E map of Sunrise Powerlink Map (courtesty SDG&E)

SDG&E says it has contracted with Stirling Energy Systems of Phoenix, AZ, to develop a 900-megawatt solar generating facility that proposes to use a novel design for parabolic solar mirrors that would track the sun to generate much of the renewable power for San Diego. The company also has signed contracts for solar parabolic trough technology from MMR Power Solutions of Baton Rouge, LA, as well as contracts for power from geothermal energy providers near El Centro and wind power producers along the route.

Opponents, who also argued the Sunrise Powerlink was too expensive, unnecessary, and could spark increased backcountry wildfires, already have filed court challenges to overturn state and federal regulatory approvals given to the project in 2008 and 2009. Opponent Donna Tisdale told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Our grass-roots coalition will appeal the Metz approval and any that follow, and we’ll file suit if necessary.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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