San Juan Capistrano sues state regulators to block $350-million power line project
The city of San Juan Capistrano is suing state regulators over a proposed $350-million transmission line that critics argue is just the latest in a series of unnecessary and costly utility projects.
In a 35-page lawsuit filed late Friday in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the Orange County municipality asked the court to stop the project, citing reports of excess power on the state’s electric grid.
The city’s initial evidence for the case includes reports in the Los Angeles Times that detailed how California regulators continue to greenlight new power plants even though the state is producing more electricity than it needs. In some cases, California is even paying other states to take excess solar power.
The lawsuit against the California Public Utilities Commission is one of a growing number of steps being taken by government leaders and ratepayers to combat energy regulators who they believe are captive to the utility industry.
Residents and officials in the Ventura County city of Oxnard have bombarded the California Energy Commission with hundreds of emails in the last couple of weeks, urging commissioners to reject a roughly $250-million natural gas plant they argue isn’t needed.
And residents in the Porter Ranch community near the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage plant have been campaigning for the permanent closure of that facility after one of the 115 wells leaked amid a nearly $200-million upgrade project. The incident, considered the worst methane leak in U.S. history, forced thousands of residents from their homes after they complained of nose bleeds, nausea and vomiting.
“The CPUC’s construction-happy, reliability-focused stance is not coincidental,” Michael Aguirre, a lawyer for San Juan Capistrano, wrote in the lawsuit against the utilities commission. “Utility companies have lobbied the CPUC into submission to approve their projects.”
The utilities commission approved the project even though an administrative law judge noted that it wasn’t necessary, Aguirre said.
In the lawsuit, he also cited comments made by Leia Guccione, an expert in renewable energy at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, to The Times.
“The way utilities earn revenue is building stuff. When they see a need, they are perversely incentivized to come up with a solution like a gas plant,” she said.
The utilities commission declined to comment on the lawsuit. It has defended its approval of natural gas plants, noting that the system needs redundancy to ensure the grid remains reliable during emergencies.
“We overbuilt the system because that was the way we provided that degree of reliability,” Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told The Times in an earlier interview.
Patrick Currier, a partner with Beverly Hills-based consulting firm S2C Pacific and a former senior energy counsel to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the growing ratepayer angst stems from the failure of the utilities to seriously consider the impact of their actions on consumers.
Utility companies are required to maintain certain reserve margins — generally about 15% of their generation capacity — but raising rates to foot the cost of questionable new power plants will raise consumer ire, he said.
“From a ratepayer’s perspective, you never want to see overbuild,” Currier said. “Ratepayers just get stuck with the bill. They’re not going to be bamboozled again. There is a balance that needs to be struck.”