Questions for Bill Powers - Voice of San Diego

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Questions for Bill Powers

Saturday, July 8, 2006 | Bill Powers, 50, is a frequent critic of Sempra Energy, the region’s largest energy provider. The University Heights-based engineer helped found the Border Power Plant Working Group, which has fought Sempra on several projects in Mexico. Powers says the San Diego-based energy company dodges the United States’ environmental regulations by locating power plants and a natural gas import facility south of the border – fueling air pollution north of the border. He’s also helped environmentalists fight the company on the Sunrise Powerlink, a lengthy new power line that would run from Imperial County to the coast, passing through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

He’s a New York native, went to school in North Carolina and was launched into San Diego’s electricity scene when Carlsbad’s city government hired him to fight for pollution controls at the Encina Power Station. He sat down with voiceofsandiego.org to talk about his nemesis, what drives him and just what makes Sempra CEO Donald Felsinger’s hands different from most other executives’.

I listened to a KPBS debate between you and new Sempra CEO Donald Felsinger. He didn’t seem like a big fan. I’m curious. Do you see your role as contrarian?

I see my role as pitching an alternative vision of the future. Sempra’s objective is to make money. And more than a lot of companies, that’s their only objective.

I’ve been on a couple of radio shows with him. And what surprised me is that most of these executives are MBA-types. Manicured hands. Felsinger’s got pretty rough hands. This guy’s been working outside all his life, which really surprised me. Not that I spend a lot of time looking at peoples’ hands. I’m really surprised that he didn’t have those hands like my daughter’s – perfect, never touched any tool. … I don’t perceive him as a visionary leader. … Virtually every NGO, every arts and crafts, every cultural entity in this city gets some level of funding from Sempra Energy or SDG&E. It mutes criticism. The company – they’re not evil, but they’re not visionary. When I’m perceived as contrary, I just don’t see their vision as being coincident with what we need.

You’ve said that the way to beat the Sunrise Powerlink is through the technical data. What kind of challenge does that provide? It seems easier to appeal to emotion when it comes to stuff like that. How do you argue it on the technical data – and sell that perspective to the public?<</b>br/>It’s kind of like a sports event where you’ve got to survive the first couple of quarters if you’re going to win it in the fourth quarter. In this case, we do have to demonstrate that SDG&E is trying to dial the technical process – that they know what they want to do, their preferred option, and they’ll get all the ducks in a row, and we had every guru check it out, and everyone has validated this line. If they’re successful in doing that, it makes it very tough to rattle the public cage and say: Yeah, sure they had all these transmission experts say that these other ones won’t work and this one will – but we disagree. And we’re the defenders of the nighthawk bat.

Do you see San Diego as sort of an energy epicenter? Can you see yourself still having the same role if you’re still living in Hempstead, New York or in the Raleigh-Durham region?

No. This is just a fluke of fate. I came out here years ago. For years, when I started my consulting business, I was just trying to keep my nose clean and make money. It was just really a series of coincidences that put me in this position. On the Encina Power Plant (project) I hadn’t been exposed to how the game was played when there’s hundreds of millions of dollars on the line. What I saw made it clear to me that without having someone on your side who has a lot of technical knowledge about how all this works – when someone is blowing smoke and when someone is not – that it’s very difficult for the public interest community to not get bamboozled. If you’re a smart person who’s a commissioner or a city council member, in a decision-making position, but you have no background in this area, energy is inherently intimidating to a lot of people.

You’ve got a phalanx of public engineers and transmission planners telling you it can’t be done and there’s no one on the public-interest side telling you it can be done – only that what’s going to be done is a bad thing – what can you do?

Initially I was going to try to get this organization funded, so I’d be drawing my income from this. But it was very hard to get funding, because we sue people. We try to use every tool available to influence the process. Funders generally don’t like that. They don’t like to fund people that are suing other people, because that’s impolite. But because we don’t have any outside funding, we’re relatively impervious to pressure. That is such a precious thing, that I don’t even want funding any more.

The use of the word impolite. Do you see yourself as impolite in this back-and-forth debate?

Well, no, I see myself as behaving professionally. I don’t call anyone names. I’m not impolite. But it’s a problem for them because they have their own game plan and they’re trying to sell their game plan as in the public good. It’s not that I’m impolite. It’s just that I say in polite terms, that’s bullshit.

Does the perception for you sort of fuel it? Don’t you like feeling like the independent underdog?

I like my independence. If I didn’t have it, I couldn’t be doing this. But I’m 50 years old. Maybe if I were 25 there’d be more chest-thumping involved. I’ve become a lot smarter on dealing with the press and getting the word out. …

But I’ve got another life. I’ve got a couple of kids. I’ve got a business to run. I do this because – I’m not making this up – because I think it needs to be done. Not because I seek out the opportunity to do it. There really isn’t a lot of chest-thumping involved. One of the things I admire Dick Cheney for – well, I don’t really admire him for this – but he’s all about getting things done. He could care less whether he’s on the cameras or getting interviewed. He wants to achieve his goal. He’s probably far more ruthless than anyone in a democracy should be, but that aspect … I feel the same way. I don’t care if I’m in the article, as long as we achieve the goal. That’s a pretty good summary.

– Interview by ROB DAVIS

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