Controversial Transmission Line Receives First Major Approval

A controversial new transmission line project, billed as essential for new renewable energy projects in Southern California, just received one of its first key approvals late last week.

The California Independent System Operator Corporation (California ISO) Board of Governors unanimously approved the Sunrise/Greenpath transmission project proposed jointly by San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and Citizens Energy. Supporters say the project will provide a vital “electricity on-ramp” from the southeastern corner of the state to San Diego and the rest of the California grid. The combination 500,000/230,000-volt transmission link will also provide access to hundreds of megawatts in renewable generation, bringing much-needed green power onto the grid. Among those benefiting from the new lines could be the well known Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) projects proposed by Stirling Energy Systems. This would also free up more room for wind power projects in the region. The transmission lines sparked controversy, however, with notable environmental organizations suggesting the project will harm the fragile desert ecosystem on which it would cross and that the lines have more to do with accommodating more dirty “brown” power than renewable energy-generated power. “The Powerlink is like something out of the dark ages, undermining local electricity generation, discouraging renewable energy, and trashing parks, people and nature,” said David Hogan, Director of the Urban Wildlands Program at the Center for Biological Diversity. A statement from the organization — just one of many that are openly against the project — went on to say that, as initially proposed, the line would cut through the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and many other habitat preserves, parks, and communities, causing “significant harm to nature and people.” The center also charges the transmission lines will deliver less renewable energy but rather more fossil fuel energy. “SDG&E documents reveal that the Powerlink is just the first phase of a larger master plan by parent company Sempra Energy to expand the California market for imported cheap, polluting, fossil-fuel power from its Mexico power plant and others,” said the statement from the center. The controversy occurs within a tricky dynamic in the U.S. electric energy industry whereby a decades-long shift toward deregulation has created a healthy market-driven economy among utilities and independent power producers. But at the same time, relatively little has been done to expand transmission lines critical for distributing all new power. California ISO, which bills itself as entirely independent, said its Board found the transmission project will lower costs for San Diego consumers and provide significant reliability benefits to San Diego, Imperial Valley and Southern California in general by bolstering a weak link in the transmission network. The Board also found the Sunrise/Greenpath project will help deliver hundreds of megawatts of solar, geothermal, and wind power proposed for development in Imperial County. Getting the green power on the grid will help utilities meet the state’s requirement to procure or generate 20 percent of its power supply from renewable resources by the year 2010. “As an independent grid planner, the California ISO takes a critical eye to every transmission project proposed — making sure the investment is sound and responsible,” said ISO Board Chair Mason Willrich. “We agree with our staff assessment that Sunrise/Greenpath provides a comprehensive solution that will strengthen the grid, provide economic and reliability benefits as well as access to renewable resources. The transmission grid can continue to perform as well as it did during last week’s incredible heat wave only with the addition of projects like this.” The California ISO Board approval is a significant step in the overall approval process for new transmission lines, but the Sunrise portion of this project also needs approval from the California Public Utilities Commission. The Greenpath portion needs approval from its local regulatory authority. These reviews will include analysis of environmental line-routing issues.
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