The Managed World: Can you run a power line through a state park if it’s carrying clean electricity?

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. “The Managed World” series in the Oyster’s Garter explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Southern California would seem like the ideal place for solar and wind power. It’s sunny almost half the days of the year, and the deserts get their fair share of wind. In California, most of the people live densely packed along the coast, while the interior is either desert or farmland.  The price of solar on the residential scale (i.e. on the roofs of those densely built buildings and houses) is still too high to be economically feasible (though the price is dropping every day, it seems) but economics of scale make large solar plants feasible.

For SoCal, that means putting up big renewable energy farms out in places like Riverside and Imperial Counties – especially Imperial County, which has a tiny population and tons of empty land. Even though the the U.S.  Bureau of Land Management recently put a halt to all new solar projects, enough are already underway to substantially shift Southern California’s power generation to renewable sources (There’s a state mandate to get up to 20% by 2010). Unfortunately, there’s this pesky problem: Getting the electricity from hither to yon, known more specifically as Imperial County and San Diego County.

First, you’ve got these big ole mountains in the way. Well, not big so much as dramatic. The topography of the land east of San Diego made it impossible to build a railroad from San Diego eastward for a hundred years, and even now there’s no highway that runs straight east (locals might think of I-8, but in fact it bends far to the south, almost to the Mexican border). The same problems that made it hard to build a railroad or highway make it difficult to build a high voltage transmission line from the up-and-coming renewable plants (and the already existing Sempra-owned natural gas plants, in Arizona) to San Diego.

The local power company, San Diego Gas & Electric, wants to build a power line running north of the city and then east, called the Sunrise Powerlink. The proposed path will run past several lakes (yes, there are a few out there) and through Anza-Borrego State Park. Naturally environmentalists are upset. An environmental attorney I interviewed spent quality time with me explaining how the law and land-use regulation will make it easier to develop new buildings in places near the transmission line, because the area will no longer be considered “pristine.” This was one man’s opinion, but it makes sense to me that a power line would be the thin end of a wedge of development.

There is an alternative. The legally required environmental review pointed out that they could build the line parallel to the current transmission line along Interstate 8. A spokesperson from SDG&E tells me they don’t want to do that because it puts all their power-transport eggs in one basket. Last fall, when California was last on fire (as it is now again), they had to turn off the transmission line to allow firefighters to safely fight the Witch Fire. SDG&E considers it sheer luck that their transmission line was not itself damaged by the fires (We’ll ignore for now that their power lines actually started the fires). They believe that putting the new line in a separate location will at least spread their risk. If one line goes down, hopefully the other will still be running.

So we face a set of uncomfortable choices: accept the high expense of installing residential photovoltaic, a $20 billion pricetag according to SDG&E; run the line through Anza-Borrego, damaging a pristine desert environment; run the line along Interstate 8 and risk a fire knocking out electricity for most of San Diego County; or do nothing and face future brownouts as San Diego continues to grow.

One note I’ll add, though, is that I think this is a medium-term problem. Another trend in San Diego has been to add solar cells to new buildings or other new construction. There will be a new City Hall in the next ten years or so, and the rumor I’ve heard is they’ll put solar cells on it. The Convention Center, a major power user, is planning to install solar cells on its own roof by 2010. If we can move to a distributed power system less reliant on huge generation plants, that might get us out of the Powerlink dilemma.

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One Response to The Managed World: Can you run a power line through a state park if it’s carrying clean electricity?

  1. […] zombies…but allow me to transport you to those halcyon days of last July, when Eric wrote a Managed World entry on a tradeoff between generating solar power in the desert and running a power line through the […]

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