Green power may ruin pristine land in California

Transmission lines from some green power sources would cut through forests and wildlife refuges, worrying environmental groups.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

California and the city of Los Angeles have set an ambitious goal for 'greener' power: obtain 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2010.

But to do that difficult decisions need to be made. Wind, solar, and geothermal electric power produced in the rural reaches of the state must be somehow be transported to faraway cities – meaning some transmission lines must cut through national forests, wildlife refuges, and other treasured land areas.

Solar panels require the expanse and cloudless climes of desert areas, wind requires the funneling effect of mountain passes, and geothermal power is derived from hot or steamed water underground.

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But how does the city get the energy to where it's needed without spoiling the pristine environments that it's trying to preserve?

"The fact of the matter is that renewable resources are from remote areas … and that is the challenge now facing California," says Stephanie McCorkle, spokeswoman for the California Independent Systems Operator. "We are trying to green the grid, and there are deadlines looming," she adds. "Transmission lines are the missing link. Where do we put them? That is what we have to decide."

It's all part of the "California greenin' " vision being trumpeted loudly and often by officials from Sacramento to Los Angeles. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has put the state in the forefront of developing alternative energy resources while Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants to make America's second-largest city "the greenest and cleanest city in America."

"The governor and the legislature have put in place new visions for California and that is greener power," says Mike Niggli, COO for San Diego Gas and Electric, which is studying routes for transmission lines from San Diego west through mountains and deserts to the Salton Sea near the Arizona border. "That is creating the tough policy decisions on land use that come with it and a shift of emphasis to supply more environmentally friendly power across long distances … which disrupt communities and wide-open spaces to boot."

California is fast-tracking several big alternative-energy projects in the southernmost quarter of the state costing $4 billion. A proposal to build power lines, substations, and transmission towers through a national forest, two wildlife preserves, and a rural village used in TV and cinema westerns has provoked the ire of environmental groups even as authorities say no final decisions have been made.

Three others, further along, are forcing communities from San Diego to Santa Clarita to come to grips with the trade-offs and sacrifices necessary to meet the power demands – and new green standards – for a state growing by 500,000 people a year.

Then, two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) announced that it plans to build an 80-mile-long "green path" corridor to bring solar and geothermal power from southeastern California to connecting lines just northeast of Los Angeles.

Some environmental groups are up in arms over the project. "There is absolutely no reason to go through the best wild lands and wild views of a national forest and private conservancy lands," says Justin Augustine of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization. He and other environmentalists offer alternative options, including following existing corridors, promoting more conservation in urban centers, and deriving more renewable energy nearby and within urban areas.

"This is another example of public representatives and the LADWP not understanding the sensitivity of the desert and making uninformed unilateral decisions," says April Sall of Wildlands Conservancy, which also oversees lands in the path of the proposed lines.

For its part, the LADWP says the agency is committed to designing a corridor with the least possible environmental impact, but that the city must make tough choices. Much of Los Angeles is surrounded by national forest and some of the existing transmission corridors are not wide enough to accommodate the new lines, says LADWP Commission president David Nahai. [It is] … a 'greater-good issue,' which means the society and the city have to balance all the advantages and disadvantages to make the aggressive step to move away from the filthiest of fuels, which is coal," he says.

Today, Los Angeles gets 47 percent of its energy from coal from Utah and Nevada, 7 percent from hydroelectric power, 8 percent from renewables (up from 3 percent just 18 months ago), and 9 percent from nuclear plants. Resistance is high to building more nuclear plants, Nahai says.

Other state officials say conservation and urban-based solar projects are also a priority. The state's "flex your power" campaign, put in place after the 2001 brownouts, save an average of 1,000 megawatts on a peak afternoon – the production of about two medium-sized power plants, according to Ms. McCorkle.

The California Solar Initiative is spending $2.5 billion over 10 years to generate another 3,000 megawatts from urban roof tops, says Sean Gallagher, energy division director for the California Public Utilities Commission.

"We wish we could generate more renewable power closer to where it is needed," he says. "But renewables are located where they are, and getting the power to where it is needed is no free lunch. People on both sides are realizing more and more that responsibility for the planet requires sacrifices by those on all sides."

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