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They call it green power's evil twin

Transmission towers loom large in a desert project feud that the PUC will resolve.

December 18, 2008|Marla Dickerson and Marc Lifsher

CALIPATRIA, CALIF., AND SACRAMENTO — 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.

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