Governor Calls Sunrise PowerLink Example to Nation

San Diego Gas & Electric’s controversial Sunrise Powerlink should serve as an example to the nation of how to build green infrastructure, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said during a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday.

The sun and the wind available in California’s deserts are a “goldmine” of renewable power, he said.

“The challenge, of course, is moving the power,” the governor said. “If you don’t have the transmission lines you have nothing. You don’t even get the investors to invest.”

He spoke in the shadow of a massive helicopter SDG&E bought to build the line as several dozen protesters lined the road leading to Rough Acres, a former San Diego Chargers training facility SDG&E is using as a construction yard near Boulevard.

He tied construction of the 117-mile line with that of other lines around the state and the approval of massive solar farms capable of powering millions of homes.

“We are well on our way to be an example for the rest of the nation, especially when it comes to infrastructure,” he said.

Critics of the line say it is a fire danger, damaging to wildlife and unnecessary to dramatically increase the use of green power. Schwarzenegger said wildlife concerns can’t be ignored.

“Of course, we all have to be sensitive about that,” he said. But he said it’s important to look at the bigger picture.

“This will carry enough renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions one million tons a year,” he said. “That’s what this does for the environment. You have to think about the bigger goal, you can’t just think about one thing.”

Wind turbines on the Campo Indian Reservation spun behind him as he spoke.

The ceremony for some 300 people — which was paid for by shareholders — was criticized by San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who has long opposed the line.

“Today’s deplorable and premature celebration is an insult to the fire-prone communities that will live in constant fear if this line is built,” she said.

Sunrise is designed to go from the Imperial Valley to the edge of San Diego, with the capacity to bring 1,000 megawatts to the region. That’s enough power for about 650,000 homes.

Construction began this week in Alpine, and is scheduled to finish by the middle of 2012.

After speeches, the governor and other dignitaries tightened the bolts on a plaque affixed to part of a transmission tower.

About 50 protesters gathered outside the gates, taunting attendees and holding signs such as “the only green power here is $$$$$$.”

“It’s a publicity stunt,” said protester Diane Conklin, who heads a Ramona community group. “It’s to reward Arnold for his intervention at the (California Public Utilities Commission).”

In addition to an underground segment through Alpine, the line will feature 436 towers, each of which requires 900 pieces of steel and over 5,000 nuts and bolts, said SDG&E President Michael Niggli.

“We’re going to be putting people to work,” he said.

He rejected the idea that holding a groundbreaking celebration featuring a catered lunch is inappropriate, saying that construction of the line is a key event for the future of the region.

“This is important for the Imperial Valley and San Diego,” he said.

SDG&E says the line is needed to bring power from the sun, the wind, and geothermal plants in and around the Imperial Valley to its customers in San Diego.

It was proposed more than five years ago, and approved only after SDG&E abandoned a plan to take it through the heart of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in the face of fierce opposition.

Critics note that SDG&E won’t guarantee that it will actually carry green power, that its parent company, Sempra, owns a power plant in Mexicali, near one end of the line, and that SDG&E stands to make millions from construction.

Just weeks from leaving office, the governor has been promoting his administration’s environmental efforts, which include big solar farms and support for green technology.

He interceded in favor of Sunrise when the PUC was considering rejecting the project for not carrying enough green power.

Electricity users across the state will pay for the $1.9 billion price tag through their bills.

Several court challenges over construction are pending. Critics say the line wasn’t evaluated properly and it will damage wildlife and quality of life in the backcountry while providing SDG&E with an unnecessary bonus.

“SDG&E is not above the law, nor are the illegal actions of the agencies permitting the project,” Boulevard activist Donna Tisdale said in a statement.

Tisdale is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking to stop the plant. “We will have our day in court and the truth will come out on how rigged and flawed the system is,” she said.

SDG&E CEO Jessie Knight said the line has been thoroughly studied, and he’s confident it will withstand the court challenges.