Sunrise Powerlink Up, Ready For Clean Power

After years of controversy and construction, the massive Sunrise Powerlink is done, ready to funnel up to a 800 megwatts (MW) of power — much of it, eventually, clean — into the San Diego region.

The 500,000-volt transmission line stretches 117 miles through the desert and over the mountains from the Imperial Valley and cost nearly $1.9 billion to build, according to San Diego Gas & Electric. It went through five years of environmental review – drawing howls of protests and lawsuits from some residents near its path and environmentalists – and took 18 months to build.

SDG&E Sunrise Powerlink

image via SDG&E

State grid managers said the transmission line is opening not a moment too soon, with warm summer weather approaching and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shut down for the summer. (One of the nuke’s units went offline in January for maintenance, and shortly thereafter a leaky steam generator tube put the other unit out of service.)

“The timing for completion of this important new transmission artery could not come at a more critical time,” said Steve Berberich, president and chief executive officer of the Independent System Operator.  “Sunrise Powerlink is more valuable today than when it was conceived because of the significant reliability benefits it brings helping to compensate for the loss of power from the San Onofre power plant this summer.”

The origins of the power that will flow over the new line in the immediate future isn’t clear, but it won’t be long before lots of wind- and solar-generated power kicks in. SDG&E noted that in the past three years it has signed eight renewable agreements totaling more than 1,000 MW ( a gigawatt) of solar and wind power from projects in Imperial County. Will the line be able to handle all of it? Eventurally.

SDG&E says the Sunrise Powerlink right now is capable of importing 800 megawatts of power into San Diego, and will eventually carry a full gigawatt – which is enough energy to serve 650,000 homes.

Like all of California’s big investor-owned utilities, by 2020, 33 percent of SDG&E’s power must be derived from renewable resources. In 2011, the utility was at about 20 percent renewables.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.