July 15, 2008

Critics assail Green Plan North proposal

Transmission line's path may threaten several preserves

Mariecar Mendoza
The Desert Sun

COACHELLA VALLEY - Green Path North, a proposed transmission line that would funnel renewable energy from the Salton Sea area to Los Angeles and Orange counties, has some questioning exactly how "green" the project really is.

On July 19 in Yucca Valley, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power representatives are expected to meet with concerned residents and environmentalists about the up to 313 miles of power lines that would run through the Coachella Valley and Joshua Tree National Park, as well as Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The project aims to construct and operate a high-voltage transmission line - possibly including underground lines - linking the Imperial Irrigation District's transmission system in the Salton Sea to LADWP's existing transmission line in the Hesperia-Victorville area.

The proposed line would have an initial capacity of 800 megawatts, which is enough to power more than 500,000 homes.

"We want to submit the project for public scrutiny and have a thorough airing of all of the options," said H. David Nahai, general manager of LADWP.

If approved, the project is expected to be completed by 2020.

According to the utility's report to the Bureau of Land Management, the Salton Sea is the "largest untapped geothermal resource in the state of California."

Geothermal energy derives from the liquid boiling more than a mile below the Earth's surface.

Steam from the boiling liquid tapped from below the ground is then transferred into turbines that transform motion into electricity.

Geothermal energy is thought to be more reliable than other renewable energy sources, experts say, since, unlike wind and solar resources, the steam can be tapped 24 hours a day.

April Sall, chairwoman of the California Desert Coalition and preserve manager for the Wildland Conservancy, said for years there has been a "geothermal grab" involving the Salton Sea.

Currently, at least three major companies have immediate plans for five new geothermal plants in the area.

The transmission line would require the construction of two new switching stations, one near Desert Hot Springs called Devers II and another in Hesperia.

Causing problems

A path for the line has yet to be chosen, but project planners have identified six routes.

Those routes, however, are troubling to local leaders, environmentalists and residents in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Riverside County Supervisors Roy Wilson and Marion Ashley said they have objections to the project they plan to discuss with the rest of their fellow supervisors during their board meeting today.

The two also plan on writing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a letter "letting him know our stance," Ashley said.

Among some of the supervisors' main concerns is the environmental impact of Green Path North on the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, which aims to protect 27 endangered species.

"We are also very concerned and sympathetic with San Bernardino County, who took a stance again Green Path North going through the Joshua Tree National Park," Ashley said.

Those concerns are shared by other local environmental groups, including the Wildland Conservancy, who say the proposed routes threaten the following preserves:

Pioneertown Mountain Preserve: A 35,000-acre private preserve in a transition zone between the Sonoran and Mojave deserts.

Oak Glen Preserve: An area in the San Bernardino National Forest just above Beaumont that serves as the Wildland Conservancy headquarters and is the site of a historic apple orchard.

Mission Creek Preserve: A 2,200-acre area west of Highway 62 near Desert Hot Springs.

Initially, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power representatives assured Wildland Conservancy officials that a route through the national forest is not an option, Sall said.

"But now that route seems to still be in the recent proposal and there has been a lot of helicopter activity along that route," she said. "So that's discouraging and disappointing."

Sall, however, emphasized this is "not just about the removal of some trees."

"This is about designing an energy future that's responsible and has the least amount of impact on conservation land and public recreation lands," she said.

Sall added she and others against the project also are skeptical about the transmission lines because they fear the LADWP might use the path to link its nuclear power plant in Arizona to Southern California.

"The concern is that there will be more (of the non-green) nuclear (energy) than renewable (energy) coming over those power lines," Sall said.

Nahai's response is that the utility is "not contemplating putting that (nuclear) power on that line" at this time.

However, he also said "maybe, in the future, that could happen."

Another critical concern: Nearly 3,500 homes in the Colton, Fontana and Rialto areas of San Bernardino County could be affected.

Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, who represents that area, has publicly voiced his concerns about the project and the possible use of eminent domain to buy the property.

"We're not saying there would be the use of eminent domain, but it does require us to acquire property on that route," said Joe Ramallo, director of public affairs for the utility. "But we haven't even begun the environmental review at this point so it would be really premature to talk about eminent domain."

Project planners have not identified any threat to Riverside County homes at this time, Nahai said.

'Still very preliminary'

Should the project go through, those in opposition say they'll urge the utility to use existing corridors.

The "best alternative," Sall said, is sharing the Interstate 10 utility corridor currently used by Southern California Edison.

Edison officials said they were approached in late May and have had two meetings with LADWP representatives about the possibility.

But "everything is still very preliminary," said Sandi Blain, Edison's manager of project licensing for transmission and distribution.

"At this point, we're evaluating the information they gave us to see how that may or may not fit into that corridor," Blain said. "We're looking at our existing transition needs and that will tell us our possible next step."

Overall, Green Path North is a plan formed to meet state and local mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, utility officials say.

And though the laws do not apply to publicly owned utilities, the LADWP Board of Commissioners has set a goal of getting 20 percent renewable energy by 2010 and 35 percent by 2020, Nahai said.

"I want to make sure we do the right thing," Nahai said. "At the same time, we have renewable resources in the Salton Sea area and we're trying to diversify from coal, so our commitment is to do that with the least possible environmental impact."