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Sunrise Powerlink closing in on completion, even as lawsuit lingers

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Soon, San Diego County will likely have a new way of bringing large amounts of electricity into the region, just in time for summer and the months that traditionally take the greatest toll on the region’s electrical grid stability.

The Sunrise Powerlink — a project rife with controversy because of its path through previously unmolested desert and national forest — will probably be alive with electricity around a month from now, unless previously unsuccessful attempts to stop it are reversed through the courts.

The story of the transmission line’s 117-mile path begins much farther back than the project’s groundbreaking 17 months ago.

“It’s been eight years of studies, outreach and application, and environmental impact reports,” said Jennifer Ramp, spokesperson for San Diego Gas & Electric, which is building the massive line. The various cultural and biological studies, she said, were among some of the challenges of those eight years.

A portion of the Sunrise Power Link project at Rough Acres in East County comes together. Photo courtesy of San Diego Gas & Electric

“If you look at the environmental feat of the project, it’s impressive enough, but if you look at the environmental and biological component of the project, that really stepped it up a notch.”

As part of more than 300 required mitigation efforts, SDG&E had to coordinate its building schedule with biological realities like the nesting season of golden eagles and the presence of bighorn sheep.

At a cost of around $1.8 billion, the Sunrise Powerlink will enable transmission of power between the Sycamore Canyon Substation, just south of Poway on the northern edge of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, and the Imperial Valley Substation near El Centro.

From the Imperial Valley Substation, the line crosses the desert, parallel to the existing Southwest Powerlink, and then rises over the mountains of eastern San Diego County. The line continues west through the southern end of the Cleveland National Forest and north of Campo. The new Suncrest Substation east of Alpine will step down the 500-kilovolt line to two 230-kilovolt lines that will then convert to the underground section running 6.2 miles along Alpine Boulevard After that, the two lines are then brought back overhead to connect to the existing SDG&E network at the Sycamore Canyon Substation.

The Sunrise Powerlink will have the capacity to carry 1,000 megawatts of electricity, and SDG&E has said the goal is to make renewable energy, like that produced by solar, wind and geothermal energy projects, a large portion of the energy that it transmits to San Diego. In March, SDG&E announced that 20.8 percent of the energy delivered to its customers in 2011 came from renewable sources, jumping almost 9 percent from the year before.

With the anticipated completion of the Sunrise Powerlink, SDG&E expects five new renewable energy projects to enter its portfolio this year. The state has mandated utilities to draw at least 25 percent of their retail electricity from renewable sources by 2016.

As of May 18, the Sunrise Powerlink stood at about 91 percent complete. Overhead construction on the line is receiving the most intense attention in the final weeks before its upcoming in-service date, hoped to be sometime in June, Ramp said.

Construction crews, led by general contractor PAR Electrical Contractors Inc., are entirely done with the underground section of the line through Alpine, and of a total of 438 towers along the line’s path, only around 45 had yet to be erected as of May 18.

“We’re moving along,” Ramp said. “We are on schedule, on time, on budget right now.”

Completion of the Suncrest Substation, which occupies 40 acres approximately eight miles east of Alpine and was completed April 17, stands as the project’s latest milestone. It’s the third 500,000-volt substation in SDG&E's system. The other two are more than two decades old and were built as part of the Southwest Powerlink project.

Critical to the electric grid, substations provide for system protection and control functions while creating a network for transmission lines. They also "step down" transmission line voltage, connecting high voltage transmission lines to lower voltage transmission and distribution lines. Suncrest will convert the 500-kilovolt portion of the Sunrise Powerlink on the eastern side into two 230-kilovolt lines heading west.

To build the substation, crews spent more than 14 months to remove 1.2 million cubic yards of earth, pour 5,000 yards of concrete for foundations and piers, and install seven transformers that weigh around 1 million pounds each. Around 30 million gallons of water were used during construction and more than 100 blasts were required during site development. Because of the size of the transformers, their transport from the Port of San Diego to the build site required late-night freeway closures to avoid traffic impacts.

While the entire project is nearing completion, it still faces opposition from a number of environmental and community-based groups. Organizations such as Backcountry Against Dumps, the Protect Our Communities Foundation and East County Community Action Coalition claim environmental and health concerns were ignored during the various levels of project approvals, and litigation on behalf of those groups seeking to halt further construction and undo progress made to date continues to work its way through the courts.

Denis Trafecanty, president of the Protect Our Communities Foundation, said the near completion of the Sunrise Powerlink isn’t slowing down his coalition’s drive to put an end to it.

The joint suits filed by the three groups — the first of which dates back to February 2010 — have hit roadblocks in local courts, with U.S. District Judges Michael Anello and Roger Benitez previously ruling against a sought-after injunction based on the case filed against the federal Bureau of Land Management. Separate cases have also been opened by the groups against the U.S. Forest Service and California State Water Resources Board.

But the plaintiffs have appealed the decisions multiple times, and a new hearing is scheduled for June 7 in which oral arguments will be heard in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Claims made within the cases include a rushed process on the projects final environmental impact report, a wrongful certification that downstream water quality will not be affected by the transmission line and failures to follow guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act. Additionally, the plaintiffs have argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not comply with Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act following a change in the planned route of the line.

Trafecanty expressed confidence that finally reaching the Ninth Circuit will give the litigation a better chance of reversing decisions reached locally.

“We’re now out of San Diego,” Trafecanty said. “We don’t have to live with the conservative judges we have in San Diego anymore.

“We have an executive, legislative and a judicial branch in our government, and I’m really hopeful the judicial branch will respond and render an opinion that they should render, without being influenced by donations and coziness with the politicians and the executive form of the government.”

Trafecanty added that SDG&E voluntarily took on a major risk by going forward with the project despite the cases against it, and that risk is especially large now that the project is more than 90 percent complete.

“SDG&E and Sempra went ahead and decided to construct the Sunrise Powerlink even though there’s pending litigation, and the ratepayers are paying for it” Trafecanty said. “If we prevail, guess what’s going to happen? The lines will be taken down at ratepayer expense. So if we win, the costs both ways are going to be borne by the ratepayers.”

Having gotten this far into the project, SDG&E doesn’t anticipate anything different out of the Ninth Circuit than it saw happen multiple times in the lower courts.

“The project has overcome every legal challenge presented to date, and we’re confident the Ninth Circuit will also agree with the previous legal decisions that have been rendered to date,” Ramp said.

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