Calling it a “positive milestone” in what is now a three-year permitting process, Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E) early in the new year reacted upbeat and confident that its proposed 150-mile, $1.3 billion high-voltage transmission project, Sunrise Powerlink, ultimately will be built. The utility insists it is the most “cost-effective and reliable” means of tapping large new renewable-produced electricity from neighboring Imperial County.

<>Nevertheless, the project already has been delayed more than a year by doubts raised in the ongoing siting process at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). If the transmission project is ultimately rejected, alternatives show that increased pressure would fall on the need to quickly develop new natural gas-fired and renewable energy-produced electricity supplies. Assessment of the Impact on future gas supplies are not part of the draft EIR/EIS, but would have to be considered in the CPUC’s broader analysis of the options.

Several alternatives to SDG&E’s proposal were identified as “environmentally superior” in a draft joint report released last Thursday from the CPUC and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). There will be 90 days of public comment and eight joint CPUC-BLM workshops on the draft environmental impact report/statement (EIR/EIS).

At the start of the new year, the utility has refused to see anything negative in the draft report for its project that has suffered several setbacks in the past six months, including an acknowledgment that the elongated regulatory process has wiped out the possibility of having the new line in service by mid-2010. In addition, SDG&E’s negotiations with the public sector Imperial Irrigation District for the part of the Sunrise project in Imperial County broke down last summer adding more stress.

“This is an important step toward reaching a final decision at the California Public Utilities Commission,” a SDG&E spokesperson told NGI late last Thursday, noting the utility still has to thoroughly review the 7,000-page CPUC-BLM draft document that identifies up to five alternatives that are “environmentally superior” to the utility’s proposal.

The draft joint report from the CPUC and the BLM and the eventual final EIR/EIS will not make a recommendation. Some 27 alternatives are detailed as information the CPUC can eventually use in deciding whether to grant SDG&E’s request for a certificate to proceed with the project.

The workshops will be held Jan. 28 through Feb. 1. A second phase of hearings will begin in April, focusing on the cost differences among the various alternatives. The joint state-federal review considered nearly 100 alternatives to SDG&E’s proposed project neighboring Imperial County that was filed in 2005. Some 27 alternatives are detailed in the draft EIR/EIS.

Noting that the draft and the eventual final EIR/EIS completed later this year will not make a recommendation for decision-makers at the federal and state agencies, the voluminous document said that two in-basin generation projects and three alternative transmission approaches were superior in that they are “projected to create fewer or less extensive significant and unmitigated impacts” than the SDG&E proposed project that crosses roughly 25 miles of the Anza-Borrego State Park in the desert regions in the southeastern corner of California.

The government agencies’ joint report noted that the alternatives, however, do not necessarily meet all of the proposed project’s objectives.

Early last December, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) urged the CPUC to approve Sunrise Powerlink as a needed new link in the state’s electric grid that is slated to become increasingly more dependent on power from renewable resources. CAISO said its analysis “demonstrates that Sunrise is needed to meet SDG&E’s future reliability needs, will provide significant net economic benefits and is a critical component to [the utility’s] meeting the state renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requirements.”

In contrast, consumer groups — Utility Consumer Action Network and the CPUC’s independent Division of Ratepayer Advocates — argued that the project in unnecessary because the utility won’t face a crunch until 2015 at the earliest In addition, the proposal has drawn strong opposition from local organizations and individuals along the proposed transmission line route.

One of the superior alternative transmission approaches involves construction of a similar high-voltage line along a southern route parallel to Interstate Highway 8 and the existing Southwest Powerlink (SWPL), heading west from Imperial Valley and cutting north to avoid the Anza-Borrego park. It would be 40 miles shorter than the utility proposed project.

Among the acceptable alternatives are: (1) an all-source generation alternative of 700 MW of gas-fired power and 300 MW of renewables (solar, wind, biomass/biogas, etc.) in San Diego County; (2) an all-renewables alternative for 1,000 MW in San Diego County; (3) the proposed Lake Elsinore Advanced Pumped Storage Project combination pumped storage and transmission line project just north of San Diego County in Riverside and Orange Counties; (4) the Interstate 8 southern route with SWPL; and a (5) northern route involving 75 miles of the proposed project’s route combined with eight alternative routes totaling 64 miles.

SDG&E called the draft environmental review and its list of alternatives “purely informational.” The utility contends the draft EIR/EIS is intended to “inform the public, and the CPUC and BLM decision-makers, but it does not dictate the outcome of their final decision. It represents what the two agencies’ staffs have jointly put together.”

In making the final determination on the Sunrise Powerlink proposal, the CPUC will look at a broad spectrum beyond just environmental impacts, the SDG&E spokesperson said, stressing that issues such as feasibility, costs, project objectives and other aspects will be given equal weight.

“Several of the alternatives cited in the report are unlikely to ever materialize,” according to the SDG&E spokesperson. “The draft environmental report does not require that state mandates [such as greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and renewable portfolio goals] be considered in proposing the alternatives, so it is puzzling that the report would analyze and prioritize options, and then decide that these options do not meet California’s environmental mandates to reduce GHG emissions.

“We’re convinced the Sunrise Powerlink remains the most cost-effective option to secure future energy reliability and access to new renewable resources and lower GHG emissions in this region.”

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