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Work on Sunrise Powerlink project progresses

Lawsuits, mechanical mishap hasn't derailed project, says SDG&E

Roughly eight months since work began on the 117-mile Sunrise Powerlink, hailed by proponents as necessary to make renewable energy goals possible but opposed by certain groups for its environmental impact, the project as a whole stands roughly 15 percent complete.

Divided into five segments, work is ongoing at several points simultaneously, said Jennifer Ramp, spokesperson for San Diego Gas & Electric, which contracted with PAR Electrical Contractors Inc. to complete the work.

The first section begins at the Imperial Valley Substation, crosses the desert parallel to the existing Southwest Powerlink and then rises over the mountains of eastern San Diego County. The second section crosses west through the Cleveland National Forest and north of Campo. The new Suncrest Substation east of Alpine is contained within the third section, linking into the fourth section -- an underground portion along Alpine Boulevard. The final section will run two 230-kilovolt transmission lines overhead, one that runs from the Suncrest Substation to Alpine and the other that starts west of Alpine and runs to the Sycamore Canyon Substation -- where the project will connect to the existing SDG&E system.

Crews are still excavating large areas along Alpine Boulevard, making way for the underground lines that will carry power along a 6.2-mile stretch of road. A total of 40 vaults -- spaces created for the purpose of being able to perform maintenance work -- are to be dug as well. All but two of those vaults will be along Alpine Boulevard, and 36 have been dug already. Of the 42 trench segments to be dug, 24 have been dug so far.

Steel lattice towers carrying cables for the Sunrise Powerlink energy project near Plaster City in Imperial Valley. Photo courtesy of SDG&E

The project also calls for four "jack and bore" sites underneath Interstate 8 -- areas where earth is drilled vertically, then cleared underneath for the laying of cable. Three of the four have been completed.

"Even though we're still installing the vaults, we've actually been able to start stringing that underground 230-Kv cable," Ramp said, noting that 15 of the 36 trenched segments now have cable within them.

Once the remaining trenching, drilling and pulling of line on that section is complete, the splicing of the cables will begin, connecting them into a continuous unit.

Above ground, construction has also begun on the towers that will carry cable along the majority of the line. A total of 421 of the steel lattice structures will be set along the span, 44 of which have been completed. In early June, a section of one of the towers fell about 200 feet to the ground from a helicopter lifting it to its location in Imperial Valley. The helicopter carrying that tower was sent back to its manufacturing site for inspection and has since been replaced with another.

"That was a major mishap, and we have looked at the situation and sent that air crane to Oregon," Ramp said. "It's been there since, undergoing testing."

Once the replacement air crane arrived, she added, it was also put through comprehensive testing before going into the air for purposes of the job.

Construction of the Suncrest Substation east of Alpine has also begun, Ramp said, placing the project in line with an expected completion date sometime in mid-2012.

The total cost of the Sunrise project stands around $1.8 billion. When complete, it will have the capacity to carry 1,000 megawatts of electricity. It was first approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in December 2008.

A joint lawsuit remains in federal court against the project. The plaintiffs include the organizations Back Country Against Dumps, Protect our Communities Foundation and East County Community Action Coalition.

The lawsuit, which challenges the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's January 2009 decision to approve the line, has bounced between courts since it was first filed by the groups.

"Ultimately, there have been decisions made at a variety of levels, state and federal, that were contrary to the law," said Donna Tisdale, president of Back Country Against Dumps. "They didn't follow through on most of what they were supposed to do before they down-zoned much of our area out in East County and McCain Valley."

In the latest hearing back in June, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez didn't agree, ruling not to block the transmission line through a requested injunction. The plaintiffs appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, filing an emergency motion to stay the project. But that appeal was denied for the time being, with the appeals court stating an emergency motion must first be filed with the original court before one can be sought in appeals.

The fight continues for Tisdale -- also secretary of the Protect our Communities Foundation and a member of the East County Community Action Coalition -- and others that still assert mismanagement of the environmental permitting process. Claimed violations of the National Environmental Protection Act, as well as other permitting procedures, are among those made in the suit. A resident of the small East County town of Boulevard, Tisdale said not enough studies were done to mitigate potential health impacts of the transmission line.

Her own health concerns, including how the line may affect her Lyme Disease-weakened immune system, are part of her motivation, Tisdale said.

The plaintiffs re-filed in district court, this time filing the emergency motion, and the next district court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 12, Tisdale said.

"I don't expect anything different at the Aug. 12 hearing than what Judge Benitez ruled," Tisdale said. "We're required to do this because the Ninth Circuit told our attorneys to do it."

If her intuition is correct, and the emergency stay is denied as the previous injunction request was, then the groups plan on again returning the case to appeals and seeking an emergency stay at that level.

The developers of several planned renewable energy projects are relying on the successful completion of Sunrise for those proposals to become reality. LS Power signed two contracts with SDG&E last year in connection with its Centinela Solar Energy facility, scheduled for completion in 2014. Tenaska Solar Ventures also has a large stake in the progress, with two contracts of their own with the utility for roughly 280 megawatts of power to be transmitted along the line.

The local economy, Ramp said, also has a share of the stake. The second of the two Tenaska contracts, signed in March, would utilize solar power technology introduced by the French manufacturing company Soitec, which has committed to building a local manufacturing plant.

"So we can manufacture all the panels that will be shipped out to that site and to other sites," Ramp said.

When finished, construction crews will have strung up more than 1,100 miles of overhead conductor and placed 30 million pounds of steel for the towers, equating to roughly 1/4 of the steel used in New York's Empire State Building, Ramp said.

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