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


Page 4

Early on, when LADWP's survey markers started to appear in nature preserves and on private property, a group of desert activists calling themselves the California Desert Coalition set out to document them using GPS coordinates. Two of those activists, Ruth Rieman and Donna Thomas, led residents and journalists on regular visits to the sites, to show off not only the markers but the area's dramatic mesquite-covered washes, thousand-foot bluffs and, this spring, its wildflowers. But when the two women hiked out to the Big Morongo preserve in April, they found that all the survey markers had disappeared. Only mounds of disturbed soil remained.

"They didn't brush out their tracks," Rieman muttered disapprovingly.

"I ordered all of those markers taken out," Nahai says. "I wrote personal letters to all of the property owners that were affected to explain that the markers were being removed, and that they were not intended to indicate a decided pathway. We're going to have a very open and visible process before deciding on a route."

The move was intended, he adds, "to alleviate anxiety." Instead, it seemed only to compound suspicions.

"There's no question there's an urgency about the greenhouse gas situation and the need for California to make a statement. It's a question of how they do it, and the process they take to arrive at it," says Joan Taylor, chair of the energy committee for the Sierra Club's desert chapter. "Trespassing on land and putting monuments in and building brand-new transmission corridors through ecologically sensitive areas, and then lying about it -- that just isn't a good way to start."

Nahai, who takes pride in his environmental credibility -- he's a father of three who often invokes his children's future when making his case for the planet -- appears pained by the controversy. He has served on the local water board, on the board of the League of Conservation Voters, and it was under his watch as commission chair that the LADWP finally made good on its agreement to return water to the Owens Valley ("There it is," he announced at the unveiling of the reverse-pumping project, "give it back," a magnanimous flip-flop of Mulholland's 1913 declaration, "There it is, take it.")

Nahai guarantees that the Green Path North will carry only carbon-free sources of electricity along its route. In late April, the LADWP inked an agreement with the Salton Sea-adjacent Imperial Irrigation District to begin work on its first 200-megawatt plant. It seems unlikely that the utility will cave to the Mojave conservationists' demands.

It comes down to this, Nahai says: "What is it that we're going to do as a state and a society? If we have announced to the world, as we have, that we're going to foster and support renewable energy, that we're going to open our doors to the renewables industry, then we have got to live up to our promises."

And besides, as Schwarzenegger remarked in his Yale speech, "If you can't put solar panels in the Mojave Desert, where the hell can you put them?"

"How about on the rooftops and parking lots of the cities that actually use the power?" suggests Taylor. "If you're worried about energy security, generate it where it's used." She points to Southern California Edison's rooftop solar effort, launched April 2, to put a total of two square miles of photovoltaic panels atop warehouses in the inland counties of San Bernardino and Riverside. In five years, the $875 million project will generate 225 megawatts of electricity at peak hours, enough to serve 162,000 homes.

Yet even that kind of massive solar project only nicks away at the needs of coal-fired Los Angeles, which in the summer of 2006 hit a peak load exceeding 6,000 megawatts. LADWP will spend $300 million over the next 10 years to install 280 megawatts of locally generated power. It broke ground in March on the Pine Tree Wind Farm in the Mojave's Jawbone Canyon, a project that the Audubon Society fought bitterly; it will soon be the largest municipally owned wind project in the nation. The city has passed a green building ordinance requiring a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency for all new construction. But to meet its 35 percent by 2020 goal, Nahai says, it still needs transmission to the Salton Sea.

Vince Signorotti agrees. "I don't believe any of the (utilities) are going to get to their magic number without the Salton Sea being developed," he says. "It's just an incredibly important resource."