Transmission Politics Hold Up Utility-Scale Solar [update]
California plan facing ‘NIABY’ foes (Not In Anyone’s Back Yard)
[UPDATE: I have added a list of the environmental groups that oppose Superlink below] A project being developed by San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Stirling Energy is facing opposition from some environmentalists because the plan also calls for a 150-mile, high-voltage transmission line that would pass through 23 miles of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a spot known for its hiking trails, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti and spectacular mountain views.
The proposed Sunrise Powerlink would carry energy produced from several wind, solar, and geothermal installations from the California’s Imperial Valley to San Diego. The entire route would be about 150 miles long with 554 towers from end to end. (But with a cheery name like Sunrise Powerlink, how could anyone oppose it?)
While federal and state officials put the brakes on new coal-fired power plants and as investors back out of others, the demand for more renewable energy will only grow stronger. And as it turns out, the spots with the best renewable resources also have the harshest and often least habitable climates – dry, hot, windy, barren, etc. – so the electricity then needs to be transmitted to areas where people have settled (i.e. cities). And that is where some problems are surfacing.
Some environmental groups are not particularly keen about the preferred route in Southern California, and they are using every tactic they can think of to stop it – including working the aesthetics angle. “This transmission line will cross through some of the most scenic areas of San Diego” [my emphasis added], said David Hogan of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Biological Diversity. “It would just ruin it with giant, metal industrial power lines.”
These scenarios are playing out in the Imperial Valley and elsewhere as growing public demand for renewable energy intersects with a localized or generalized desire to protect open spaces and scenic vistas. One need only look to the long political skirmish that has surrounded the Cape Wind project for the last seven years to see exactly how heated these battles have become.
Renewable energy super-highway
Utilities, including San Diego Gas and Electric, argue that utility-scale renewable energy development is absolutely necessary to supply growing baseload energy demands, and that rooftop PV panels will help, but cannot produce enough power to meet the state’s renewables requirement of 20% by 2010.
The Sunrise Powerlink route was preferred by SDG&E because the next best route paralleled the Southwest Power Link along the American-Mexican border and would leave the grid vulnerable to the frequent forest fires that require the transmission lines to be shut down entirely. DG&E has some excellent multimedia resources on its website concerning the selection process, and their efforts to mitigate any environmental impacts of the transmission corridor
But rarely is everyone happy. The Center for Biological Diversity argues on its website that:
“The primary purpose of the Powerlink is to… import cheap, polluting power from fossil-fuel power plants in Mexico and deliver this power to greater Los Angeles. This means that, besides destroying habitat for imperiled species like the golden eagle, Peninsular bighorn sheep, and Quino checkerspot butterfly, the project would significantly foster global warming by supporting polluting facilities, allowing for evasion of U.S. air-pollution laws, and discouraging renewable energy development.”
The group also claims that they have “worked closely with environmental partners, property owners, and communities” in the Powerlink project but they unfortunately do not list any of them on their website.
[UPDATE: Here’s a list of some of the local and California statewide groups opposed to the]
Environmental Justice Groups:
Border Power Plant Working Group
Environmental Health Coalition
Utility Advocacy Groups:
Utility Consumers’ Action Network (UCAN)
Ratepayers for Affordable, Clean Energy
“Broad Purpose” Environmental Groups:
Sierra Club, San Diego Chapter
Resource Conservation Groups:
California Native Plant Society
California State Parks Foundation
California Wilderness Coalition
Center for Biological Diversity
Desert Protective Council, Inc.
Friends of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
San Diego Audubon Society
San Diego Cactus and Succulent Society
Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Chapter
One of the projects dependent on Powerlink is the 900 MW Stirling Energy solar dish project that will consist of an initial phase of 12,000 SunCatcher 25 kW solar dishes providing 300 MW to the grid. Phase 2 will expand the number of solar dish Stirling systems to 36,000 units, capable of generating up to 900 MW of power designed to automatically track the sun and focus solar heat onto a power conversion unit that converts the intense heat to grid-quality electricity.
That plant would initially feed into an existing power line and provide enough electricity for more than 200,000 homes. But moving into phase two and three, it would need substantially more more transmission capacity.
What is the future of the project? Well, considering that SDG&E would likely fall short of the 20% renewables by 2010 RPS requirement without it; and that the utility already holds a right-of-way through the park that predates the park’s establishment, I would say that CPUC will pass the proposed transmission project.
The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote as soon as August on Sunrise Powerlink.