The Southern California desert could produce a gusher of renewable energy.
Strong sunlight bathes its open plains, even in winter. Powerful
winds stream through its mountain passes. Fractures in the earth along
the San Andreas Fault heat pools of underground water - the perfect
fuel for geothermal power plants.
There is, however, a problem. Most Californians don't live there.
Any electricity generated in the desert by solar plants or wind
farms needs to travel via power lines to the cities, most of them
clustered along the coast. And the state's grid of transmission lines
can't do the job. It doesn't have enough lines in the right places to
carry all that power.
Electrical transmission could turn into a bottleneck for renewable energy.
"There's a real concentration of renewables in southern California,"
said David Hawkins, lead renewable power engineer with the California
Independent System Operator, which runs the state's electrical grid.
"Now the question is, how do you get it to the load centers? How do you
get it to Northern California?"
The same question applies across the country. The places best suited
for solar plants or wind farms often lie far away from America's
population centers. The Great Plains, for example, are a perfect place
for wind farms but hold few people. A U.S. Department of Energy study
this year found that wind could supply 20 percent of America's
electricity by 2030 - if the country spends $20 billion expanding and
improving the grid to move that power.
Now, renewable-power advocates hope that President-elect Barack
Obama will make expanding and upgrading the nation's power grid part of
his economic stimulus package.
They have joined the long line of interests vying for an infusion of
federal cash and attention, sensing a rare opportunity to generate
interest in a topic most Americans ignore. Some have already put in
specific requests. Politicians from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and
Washington recently asked that the stimulus package include $5 billion
to finance improvements to their region's power grid.
Power lines have enemies
But power lines have a way of generating enemies. No one wants one
running through their neighborhood, and many environmentalists remain
deeply suspicious of any plan to build lines across open wilderness.
California energy regulators earlier this month approved plans by
San Diego Gas and Electric Co. to build a $1.9 billion power line that
environmentalists had bitterly fought for years. The Sunrise Powerlink
will run from the inland desert, near the Salton Sea, to the coast.
"Why the heck should we pay for this line when we can use rooftop
solar and get the energy we need?" asked Denis Trafecanty, co-founder
of Protect our Communities, one of several groups fighting the project.
His comments point to another potential obstacle. Some
environmentalists want to do away with the old model of distributing
power - building a big power plant somewhere and hooking it to a big
Instead, they want to use large amounts of small-scale, distributed
power generation, such as rooftop solar panels or fuel cells. The grid
would still need to be improved, but those improvements would focus on
integrating small amounts of power from many places. Sunrise Powerlink
opponents embraced a 2007 study showing how that approach could supply
San Diego's future energy needs.
"We have this opportunity to rethink the way we organize the grid
and democratize generation," said John Farrell, with the Institute for
Local Self-Reliance in Minnesota. He co-wrote a paper arguing that
states should focus on meeting their renewable energy goals by building
smaller-scale projects within their own borders, eschewing
long-distance transmission lines that can cost more than a $1 billion
"That cost can pretty quickly add up to other renewable projects
that you could have built if you weren't building this power line,"
The price is certainly significant. But so is the need, say those who favor building more lines.
California law requires that the state's big investor-owned
utilities get 20 percent of the power they sell from renewable sources
by the end of 2010. A report this year by the California Independent
System Operator found that the state should be able to hook up enough
renewable power to meet that goal, if the Sunrise Powerlink and a
transmission project in the Tehachapi Mountains get built.
But California officials now want to up the ante, requiring 33
percent renewable power by 2020. The same report said the state would
probably need six more transmission projects, costing roughly $6.5
billion, to meet that goal.
The current power grid won't suffice. Neither will relying on solar panels planted on homes and carports, Hawkins said.
"Distributed generation is important - it has a role to play," he
said. But, "you're just not going to get enough power out of rooftops
and parking lots."
Some of the power may come from out of state. Utilities have
proposed several long-distance power lines to connect California to the
Southwest, the upper Great Plains - even British Columbia.
Meanwhile, several California government agencies are working
together to figure out where to place new transmission lines so that
they can hook large amounts of renewable power to the grid at the
lowest possible price. Dubbed the Renewable Energy Transmission
Initiative, the group also consults with the utilities and
"There's no question that the grid needs to be upgraded," said Carl
Zichella, regional director for the Sierra Club, who is working on the
transmission initiative. "We will need to build some additional lines.
We can also get more out of the existing system."
But Zichella's organization doesn't embrace all power lines.
Sierra Club fought project
The Sierra Club fought hard against the Sunrise Powerlink project.
At first, opposition focused on the line's proposed route through the
arid mountains of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. In approving the
project this month, the California Public Utilities Commission rejected
that route and instead chose one that runs south of the park, close to
the Mexican border.
San Diego Gas & Electric called the project a much-needed
pathway for renewable power, and the commissioners agreed. It will link
San Diego to Imperial County, which already has geothermal plants and
could one day host large solar installations as well.
"The lack of transmission has slowed the development of renewable
energy in California," said Commissioner Rachelle Chong. "Approving
Sunrise Powerlink helps remove this barrier."
But location wasn't Sunrise's only issue. Environmentalists suspect
that San Diego Gas &Electric wants the line to carry electricity
from fossil fuel power plants in Mexico - not renewable power from
Imperial County. The utility has consistently rejected that argument.
"Our concern all along about this project has been that it's a bait
and switch," said Micah Mitrosky, one of the Sierra Club's organizers
against the Sunrise project.
Most power line opponents, however, agree that the nation's power
grid will need to be run in a new way as the use of renewable power
Fossil fuel power plants can produce the same amount of electricity
hour after hour, day after day. But solar plants and wind farms don't
work that way. Solar power rises and falls with the sun, and wind can
howl one day only to die the next. Also, wind power in California tends
to peak at night.
Balancing all those sources on the same power lines will require
better technology, more planning and careful management by the people
operating the grid, said Stephen Lee, senior technical executive at the
Electric Power Research Institute.
"They need to really increase their vigilance over what's
happening," he said. "Blackouts could happen if things are behaving in
a way that the system was not originally planned to handle."