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At last, SDG&E gets Calif. PUC approval for Capistrano substation upgrade

Despite years of local opposition, California regulators unanimously approved San Diego Gas & Electric Co.'s application to upgrade a substation in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

The Sempra Energy subsidiary and many representatives of local governments, emergency services, water and sewer utilities and businesses urged the Public Utilities Commission to approve the project as crucial for keeping the lights on in populous south Orange County, Calif.

Chambers of commerce officials and local government leaders pointed out the area has a year-round population of more than 300,000 residents and swells to more than a million people during tourist season. The California ISO warned that the project is essential for reliability.

Yet local opponents to expanding and changing the structure of the aging substation objected so loudly and often that a PUC administrative law judge proposed the utility build a new substation at another location or not build it at all.

PUC President Michael Picker decided those were not reasonable or economically feasible proposals, and he wrote up his own proposed decision to approve the $381 million San Juan Capistrano substation expansion. Despite earlier postponements, Administrative Law Judge Darwin Farrar introduced a proposal for the commission to again delay its decision until next year, but to no avail.

Local residents in months past pleaded with the commission to consider the historic appearance of their community, which is probably best known for the annual migration of swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano. The birds stopped nesting in the church ruins about 20 years ago, probably because of a church restoration project, but migrate to other locations in the area.

Commissioner Michel Florio said SDG&E's substation is about a mile away from the church and no harm would come to the swallows. Florio said he visited the substation and was not impressed with the old substation building that locals said was historically significant. "It is really not a very attractive thing," he said during a PUC meeting Dec. 15, continuing that SDG&E's plans to preserve the façade would probably improve its appearance.

SDG&E will upgrade the substation in what it calls its South Orange County Reliability Enhancement project to increase the aged 138/12-kV Capistrano substation's capacity to 230 kV on the utility's property in a residential area near downtown.

The project is needed because the utility now has only one 230-kV substation, the Talega substation, to serve the entire south county. If it fails, thousands of customers will lose power, including essential police, fire, rescue and hospital facilities, the utility and its supporters said. Talega is in a very high-risk area for fires and there is always a danger of earthquake damage, the PUC said.

"Over the last three decades the energy demand in the southern portion of Orange County has more than tripled, putting a strain on the power grid during peak times for customers," SDG&E said in a press release.

SDG&E said it will also replace mostly wood poles with new fire-resistant steel poles to support a new 230-kV double-circuit extension for 7.5 miles between the Capistrano and Talega substations. The utility filed its application to rebuild the substation in May 2012. (PUC Application 12-05-020)