August 17, 2008

The desert and green power: A love triangle

The pristine Mojave. Clean energy for a city that needs it. Do environmentalists have to choose?

By Michael Martinez
Chicago Tribune

PIONEERTOWN, Calif. — April Sall is a keeper of the Mojave Desert and its mountains, tending a private conservancy in the same canyon where her grandmother homesteaded in the 1920s.

Once considered wasteland, this expanse of sunshine and wind is now a prized battleground between unlikely opponents. For generations, conservationists like Sall's family have guarded the landscape, but 21st Century demands for renewable energy are threatening to crash into the pristine desert, now deemed a gold mine for solar, wind and geothermal farms.

Unlike offshore drilling and other oil and gas ventures in which developers and environmentalists are obvious adversaries, renewable energy is increasingly pitting two kinds of green advocates against each other as the nation seeks alternative sources in the face of record oil prices and global warming, both sides say.

The issue bears upon building a new infrastructure—such as gargantuan transmission towers or wind turbines—to connect remote areas where clean energy is being harvested while conservationists vigilantly protect the land and its life.

Big plans, big stakes

Such conflicts have played out in the Midwest, but the stakes are acute in California, where new state laws demand industry cut carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and require private utilities to generate 20 percent renewable energy by 2010.

Near Pipes Canyon—where Sall, a preserve manager for the non-profit Wildlands Conservancy, resides—a group led by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is considering building a leg of transmission lines between a substation outside Palm Springs and one in Hesperia, about 80 miles away.

Called Green Path North, the lines would ultimately connect Los Angeles and other communities to the Salton Sea's 2,000 megawatts of geothermal power—enough to juice 2 million homes—as well as solar and wind plants. The utility group will select from six potential routes, including one as long as 313 miles, but a dispute over a "preferred" route through Pipes Canyon and the broader Morongo Basin has residents fuming.

"There's some conflict due to what's been described as a feeding frenzy for renewable energy in the desert," Sall, 28, said as she walked through a landscape of mesas and the Sawtooth Mountains that surround Pipes Canyon and adjacent Pioneertown. The setting is so evocative of the Old West that Roy Rogers and other cowboy actors built Pioneertown in 1946, and Hollywood made more than 200 movies and TV serials here, such as "The Gene Autry Show," "The Cisco Kid" and " Annie Oakley."

"If you're going to destroy conservation and pristine lands, then yeah, how green is it in the end?" Sall asked. She favors cities building solar plants on warehouse roofs, for example, but the utilities say the desert's geothermal fields provide a steady stream of power and do not rely on weather conditions as solar and wind power do.

Still, the dispute has led to tense meetings, and residents set up a Web site condemning the renewable-energy transmission lines through their communities.

No easy answer

As Congress and presumptive presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama struggle with the nation's energy crisis, developing alternative energy poses conflicts too.

"We're really at the forefront of a discussion that is certainly going to be repeated throughout the state of California and nationally as well," said David Nahai, general manager and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The nation's biggest municipal utility, the department has set a goal of providing 35 percent renewable energy by 2020, up from the current 8 percent.

"All of us are going to face this challenge of where to build transmission corridors in a way that is going to impact the local communities as little as possible," he said.

The farther the green source is from urban users, the greater the risk of controversy, industry leaders say.

"It's interesting that we consider some of these areas as pristine and we don't want to put turbines or solar or transmission lines there, but they are suitable for [housing] development. There's sort of an irony there," said Mick Sagrillo, president of the non-profit Midwest Renewable Energy Association.

In the Mojave's Morongo Basin, open space advocates fear transmission towers—as high as 220 feet, with rights of way as wide as 330 feet—would endanger a wildlife corridor. But Los Angeles officials said they haven't determined tower sizes.

The California Desert Coalition, which opposes the towers, says the Los Angeles utility identified the Morongo Basin as the "preferred" route last year when helicopters landed on private property and the utility's crews laid survey disks and markers in the area. Later the utility apologized, calling it a "premature" move.

Residents want the transmission lines confined to an existing Southern California Edison corridor along Interstate Highway 10, but those lines are running at capacity, Los Angeles officials said.

Nahai, who joined the Los Angeles utility last year after the controversial helicopter surveys, acknowledges mistrust among angry residents, whom he visited last month in a meeting that was heated and raucous.

"We need to continuously talk to people and need to gain their trust and confidence," Nahai said.