Walking on a Wire

Los Angeles needs green power. Does it have to tear up the desert to get it?

  • Electric transmission lines near Richvale, California. DAVID R. FRAZIER/DANITA DELIMONT AGENCY/DRR.NET

  • H. David Nahai says the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power "agonize(s) all the time" about the effects of new transmission lines through the desert. KEVIN SCANLON

  • In the path of powerlines? An endangered desert tortoise. PHOTO COURTESY DONNA THOMAS, CALIFORNIA DESERT COALITION


  • April Sall is interviewed while California Desert Coalition members protest the Green Path North Route in January. PHOTO COURTESY DONNA THOMAS, CALIFORNIA DESERT COALITION


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By the time of Puglisi's discovery in late 2007, however, the LADWP had already submitted an application to the Bureau of Land Management for a right of way following the markers through the Big Morongo Preserve. A few months later, it petitioned the federal Department of Energy to include that route in the West-Wide Energy Corridor (WWEC), a process set forth by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to fold hundreds of energy-transportation projects into a single environmental review. The way it looked to Puglisi, the L.A. Department of Water and Power -- the same agency that 85 years ago built an aqueduct to suck the Owens River Valley dry -- was setting up for another desert land grab. "Los Angeles," Puglisi observes, "doesn't give out very much information."

More to the point, Los Angeles is in a hurry. The city needs to meet the renewable energy goals imposed by its green-minded mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who wants 20 percent of the city's power to come from renewable sources by 2010, and 35 percent by 2020. And it also has to catch up with the rest of California. None of the state's other utilities, from the investor-owned Southern California Edison to the public Sacramento Municipal Utility District, emit anywhere near the 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that LADWP does every year. And while the public utility was previously exempt from a state anti-global warming law, it may soon be subject to a statewide cap-and-trade system taxing all greenhouse gas emitters, public and private.

So the LADWP, which currently derives only eight percent of its energy from renewable sources -- up from three percent in 2006 -- has had to scramble to find green power. And the Mojave has long been a natural place to look.

"The wasteland of the desert is the goldmine of our future energy needs," writes the octogenarian energy expert S. David Freeman in his book, Winning Our Energy Independence. Freeman, who helped guide energy policy under both the Nixon and Carter administrations, ran the L.A. Department of Water and Power from 1997 to 2001. He wears cowboy hats and speaks in a Tennessean's exaggerated drawl, and retains an environmental hero's glow in Southern California, where he's now busily greening the city's soot-choked port.

The 55-year-old Nahai, by contrast, ran his own private real estate law firm before coming to the utility. He wears elegantly cut suits and delivers his words in a refined, British-inflected English. But in all the important ways, he is Freeman's philosophical heir: Next to the challenge of weaning his city off coal, all other concerns pale.

"The effects on the environment and the repercussions (of transmission) -- we agonize over it all the time," Nahai says. "But I remain convinced that those Salton Sea resources are the only fuel to replace coal. And it is in the best interest of the state and all of its citizens that we access them."

A year ago, Nahai described this as acting on behalf of the "greater good." The wording was unfortunate, echoing as it did the same utilitarian principle -- the greatest good for the greatest number -- Franklin D. Roosevelt used to justify the Owens Valley water deal. Desert residents seized on it. "Whose 'greater good' are we talking about?" gripes April Sall, who manages two preserves in the Mojave for The Wildlands Conservancy. "What about the greater good of future generations who won't have this land to enjoy?"