December 18, 2008

Debate over Sunrise Powerlink may be near decision

Transmission lines near Boulevard in San Diego County. Many area residents have criticized a utility’s plan to erect what it calls a superhighway for green electricity as it tries to meet its renewable energy commitment.Sean Masterson / For The Times

The California Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote on the renewable energy transmission project, opposed by some environmentalists.

By Marla Dickerson and Marc Lifsher
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento and Calipatria, Calif. -- In the rural, arid flatlands near the Salton Sea, CalEnergy Generation is sitting on what California needs.

The Imperial County company taps steam heat from deep within the Earth's crust to generate clean electricity, enough to light 238,000 homes.

There's more where that came from. But whether further development of renewable energy ever happens at this Calipatria operation and dozens of proposed projects in California's hinterlands may depend on what goes on in San Francisco, maybe as soon as today.

The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote on a controversial transmission project known as the Sunrise Powerlink. The $1.9-billion high-voltage line would stretch more than 100 miles from Imperial County to San Diego, linking power plants in the desert to coastal cities hungry for their energy.

Billed by its developer, San Diego Gas & Electric Co., as a superhighway for green electricity, the project has drawn fierce opposition from environmental and community groups that don't want Godzilla-sized power towers marring the region's scenic wild areas.

The bruising four-year battle has exposed one of the dirty little secrets of clean energy: A lot of this new-age power requires old-school infrastructure to get to people's homes.

"You can't love renewables and hate transmission. They go together," said Jonathan Weisgall, a vice president of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., which owns CalEnergy.

SDG&E, a unit of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, says it needs the line to meet tough state mandates to boost its use of green energy. Existing transmission, company executives contend, can't possibly accommodate all the wind, solar and geothermal projects needed in coming decades.

Opponents say clean power is a cover for SDG&E to use Sunrise to transport low-cost, polluting electricity from Mexico, where Sempra has invested heavily in natural gas and power-plant assets.

Activists also say Sunrise will fleece ratepayers, destroy sensitive desert habitat and increase the risk of deadly blazes in one of the state's most fire-prone areas. Far better, they say, to upgrade California's existing transmission network, encourage energy conservation and build clean generation closer to California's cities.

"This isn't about protecting the planet. It's about money," said Donna Tisdale, a rancher and community activist in eastern San Diego County. "This is the industrialization of rural America."

A creaky grid

California isn't alone in this power struggle.

Concern is rising about the inability of the antiquated U.S. power grid to keep pace with the nation's growing demand for electricity. Congestion -- essentially electricity traffic jams -- bedevils existing transmission corridors across the country. Renewable sources such as wind and utility-scale solar thermal plants are adding to the bottleneck.

The U.S. Department of Energy has identified Southern California and the New York-to-Washington corridor as the nation's most critically power-congested areas. Officials say more transmission should be built and warn of the increasing risk of blackouts if it isn't.

California is in a particularly tight spot. State law requires investor-owned utilities to procure 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010. That's set to increase to 33% by 2020, thanks to sweeping new rules that require California to slash its greenhouse gas emissions.

At present, less than 12% of the state's electricity comes from renewables. Utilities are counting on large-scale solar plants, wind farms and geothermal operations to help them meet their targets.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger actively supports these projects as well as new transmission to accompany them. He wrote utility regulators Tuesday endorsing the Sunrise line, saying, "This project is a vital link in California's renewable energy future and must be approved as soon as possible."

Critics say spending billions on distant power plants and hulking transmission lines is a throwback to another era, the equivalent of betting the farm on an Escalade instead of a Prius. The true promise of green electricity, said San Diego environmentalist Terry Weiner, lies not only in switching to clean sources but also in changing the way energy is delivered.

She said massive investment in rooftop solar panels in California's cities could bring hundreds of clean megawatts online quickly without damaging precious wilderness habitat.

"San Diego doesn't need to import sunshine from the desert," said Weiner, conservation coordinator for the San Diego-based Desert Protective Council.

Environmentalists have won some rounds. SDG&E had been pushing to build Sunrise through the heart of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a recreational jewel beloved by hikers and campers. That 150-mile route appears doomed after recent decisions by an administrative law judge and a utilities commission member.

Judge Jean Veith wants the commission to reject the Sunrise Powerlink because she has concluded it's too costly, too harmful to the environment and not needed for SDG&E to meet clean-energy mandates.

Commissioner Dian Grueneich favors an alternate 120-mile route along the Mexico border, provided that SDG&E agrees to deliver a "substantial" amount of clean energy on the line.

The utility objected, complaining that continued regulatory wrangling would slow construction and discourage the development of renewables. The company promised to allow no power from coal-fired generation on the line if the commission would give it a timely approval.

"I think it's ready for a decision," said Mike Niggli, SDG&E's chief operating officer. "There have been tens of thousands of pages of documents."

A need to plan

The likelihood of approval increased markedly a few weeks ago, when commission President Michael Peevey issued his own proposed alternative decision mandating the same route Grueneich did but without her restrictions. It would "clear the way for a new renewable energy superhighway, allowing us to tap into the Imperial Valley's rich renewable resources without delay or unnecessary barriers," Peevey said.

Whether Sunrise is greenlighted and with what conditions will send important signals to companies hoping to develop more geothermal, solar and wind energy in California's desert regions.

Building transmission gives renewable-energy companies the certainty they say they need to market electricity. Access to transmission allows them to sign long-term delivery contracts with utilities and line up financing to build new power plants.

But financial uncertainty could make it impossible to fulfill contracts with both SDG&E and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to supply up to 1,700 megawatts of power, said Steve Cowman, chief executive of Stirling Energy Systems Inc., a Phoenix solar power company.

Californians need to find a balance between protecting environmentally sensitive areas and building transmission lines, said Paul Thomsen, director of policy and business development for Ormat Technologies Inc., a Reno geothermal company.

"You really start to back yourself into a corner," Thomsen said, "if you don't want to live next to a power plant, and you don't want transmission and don't want fossil fuels."