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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A serious 28-year-old with a blond ponytail and a rosy tan, Sall is a third-generation citizen of this desert. Her family has lived here since her grandmother came out as a young single woman in the 1920s and built her own house in the rocks. Sall left the area to earn a biology degree at Humboldt State University, but later returned, determined to defend her home. "There was a lot of great conservation going on up on the North Coast with the Redwoods," she says. "There were not as many people working to save the desert."

Sall and her allies find many parallels between the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the Green Path North. In 1906, William Mulholland inveigled Gifford Pinchot into declaring the Owens Valley federal forest so the city wouldn't have to buy off private landowners; now the LADWP has asked the federal government to classify its preferred route as a federal energy corridor. Congress granted a right of way for the Los Angeles aqueduct only after the city promised it would use the water solely for non-industrial purposes; the LADWP hopes to smooth the way for its transmission line by dedicating it only to green power.

"The general sentiment that we're finding as desert residents and biologists is that Los Angeles thinks the desert is a place to dump things," says Sall. "First it's their trash, then their nuclear waste. Now it's their energy projects."

Almost since George Westinghouse built an 11,000-volt power line to transport electricity 20 miles from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, N.Y., the transmission of electrical power has stirred up trouble. Cities go dark when there isn't enough of it; expensive wind projects go underused because no one can agree on who will front the money for the power lines. Because there's a financial incentive for utilities to own transmission -- it means they don't have to pay "wheeling fees" to use another company's lines -- sometimes more transmission gets built than anyone really needs. Most of the time, however, energy companies complain that energy is like food: There's plenty to go around, and no one would starve if only the distribution were better.

It was with that complaint in mind that Congress in 2005 designated routes through federal lands in 11 Western states, plus more potential transmission through private land in the Southwest and Northeast. If local and state governments attempt to block these corridors, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can step in after a year and, under the provisions of the energy bill, push the projects through. Consequently, the protests of the Mojave activists are being echoed throughout the West. The sweeping environmental impact report for the West-Wide Energy Corridor designates more than 6,000 miles of corridors -- and completing them will require rezoning some 165 wilderness areas.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is fighting a transmission corridor that will plow a route along Utah's Moab Rim. In Oregon, conservation groups oppose a proposed gas line that would bore under rivers in the Mount Hood National Forest. According to the map of proposed transmission routes issued by the Department of Energy, the state of Nevada could be divided up like a quilt to transport energy straight through the Desert National Wildlife Complex. "No opening of any wilderness areas in this state to any energy corridors ever," Bill Huggins of Friends of the Nevada Wilderness told the Department of Energy at a public meeting in Las Vegas. "Absolutely not."

"It's hard to see which Western constituency could possibly support this," said Amy Atwood, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, at meeting in Portland, Ore. "But the answer, of course, is that the constituency that supports this doesn't live in the West. It lives on Wall Street and in D.C., and it is attempting, essentially ... to sell off as much of our public lands as possible for energy development before public outcry rises to the degree that such policy choices will no longer be tolerated."

Some of these battles have clearer lines than others. An energy corridor devoted to bringing more oil out of Utah likely serves no environmental agenda. Come out against a project that brings wind energy down from Wyoming, however, or moves electricity from large-scale solar installations to coal-dependent cities, and you come out against polar bears and in favor of cataclysmic drought, all to prevent a localized disturbance in your backyard. No matter how pristine that backyard, or how many rare species it contains, saving it can't possibly trump saving the coasts from rising seas.

All this has inspired some California leaders to suggest that only conservationists now stand in the way of renewable energy. In an April 18 speech at Yale University's Climate Change Conference, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that "the Germans, the French, the Canadians, the Japanese, they all want to come out to California and put solar power plants in the Mojave desert and in other places. The only thing is that the problem is getting that new energy to the power grid because of environmental hurdles."

"I think Gov. Schwarzenegger so wants to see progress that he's becoming impatient," says Carl Zichella, the Sierra Club's regional staff director for Southern California. "I share the governor's impatience, but we're working as fast as we can." Moving large utilities off coal and onto renewables, he says, "is a little like turning the Exxon Valdez around."

For the past year, Zichella has been part of the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI), a statewide consortium of energy companies, land-management agencies and environmental groups devoted to solving the myriad problems associated with bringing carbon-free power to market. He's also participating in the Western Governors' Association's Western Renewable Energy Zones project, which had its kickoff meeting May 28 in Salt Lake City. The WGA foresees adding 30,000 megawatts of "new clean and diverse energy" to the Western states' grid by 2015.

"Avoiding protected areas of the desert is going to be a neat trick," Zichella says, "but that doesn't mean it can't be done. The thing people have to keep in the back of their minds is that FERC has the authority to build lines. That makes it incumbent upon us to make sure those lines are dedicated to renewable energy, and that we're not facilitating the development of coal."

Zichella is reserving judgment on the Green Path North until the L.A. Department of Water and Power officially announces a route, hoping the utility will choose to work with Southern California Edison to share a right of way along the freeway corridor. He is less diplomatic, however, about another proposed transmission line to the south, San Diego Gas & Electric's Sunrise Powerlink. "The Sunrise Powerlink is an example of a project that has been jammed through without public support or environmental safeguards," Zichella says. "It would be a mistake to allow it to be built."

Like the Green Path North, the $1.5 billion, 150-mile Sunrise Powerlink has been pitched as a way of transporting geothermal from the Salton Sea and solar power from large-scale projects the desert. Its preferred route also cuts through pristine bighorn sheep habitat, in California's much-beloved Anza Borrego State Park. A report issued in January by the California Public Utilities Commission flatly concludes that the investor-owned SDG&E's preferred route for the Sunrise Powerlink would devastate the wilderness. The report goes on to recommend several alternatives, including upgrading existing transmission lines that the California Independent System Operator has declared critically congested.

Schwarzenegger, however, likes the Sunrise Powerlink just fine -- and not, his office says, just because the San Diego utility's parent corporation, Sempra Energy, donated $25,000 to his inaugural committee. (Shortly after he announced his support for the Powerlink, Sempra poured another $50,000 into a redistricting effort the governor wants on the next state ballot.) The environmentalists, he told the Yale audience, are engaging in a "kind of a schizophrenic behavior. They say that we want renewable energy but we don't want you to put it anywhere."

David Hogan of the Center for Biological Diversity says that it's not that simple. He doubts whether the Sunrise Powerlink will carry as much renewable energy as it does natural gas-fired power from a plant Sempra recently acquired in northern Mexico. "Sempra has invested billions in a liquefied natural gas facility in Baja," he says, "and they need a way to get that to market. That's what the Sunrise Powerlink is for."

Other Powerlink opponents doubt the viability of the Salton Sea fields, claiming that the utilities have an inflated sense of how much power lies waiting there or how much can be harnessed without draining half the sea. But a seismic survey commissioned by CalEnergy, which already operates a 340 megawatt operation at the site, shows that the Salton Sea geothermal fields (SSGF) may be hotter and deeper than anyone guessed, with enough steamy brine to spin out 2,330 megawatts for more than 30 years and power more than 2 million homes.

"We think it's the largest geothermal field in the planet," says CalEnergy's vice president, Vince Signorotti. And while CalEnergy has not taken an official position on either the Green Path North or the Sunrise Powerlink, Signorotti does have an opinion about transmission in general. "I think what we need to do as a state is take a step back and look at what's happened in the last 30 years. Have we kept pace with the development of new transmission? The answer is clearly no. And that's irresponsible."

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