High up in the Tehachapi mountains north of Los Angeles lies the site of a new source of electricity for power-hungry Angelenos. That source strong winds driving big turbines will figure prominently in the state's effort to lessen its reliance on fossil fuels for power generation. Environmentalists are concerned about impact of both the project and the transmission line it will take to get the energy from the mountains to the city.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ordered that one-third of California utilities' retail electricity sales must come from renewable sources by 2020, up from 12.6 percent now. Utility-scale renewable energy projects, however, are usually far from the cities that consume large amounts of electricity. Investment in the transmission grid has not kept pace with new construction of generation capacity. Thus one of the largest constraints on the development of renewable power is the construction of adequate transmission capacity.
Many environmental advocates will object to the installation of enormous wind turbines on towering poles. When the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power identifies the path it will use for transmitting power from the Tehachapi project to Los Angeles, they will further object because the transmission lines will run along scenic routes and in environmentally sensitive areas. The California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission are in the position of having to balance California's goals of increasing the supply of renewable power with the impact of that supply on local species and environmental resources.
Southern California has already seen a similar battle over a transmission line. San Diego Gas & Electric found itself caught up in a tough siting fight when it sought to connect its service area to solar, wind and geothermal power supplies in San Diego and Imperial counties. Protests arose when SDG & E; disclosed how it would bring the power in: with a 150-mile-long high-voltage transmission line, dubbed Sunrise Powerlink. The Center for Biological Diversity argued that the transmission lines for Sunrise Powerlink would cut across "protected parks, preserves and communities," and in so doing would "ravage habitat, contribute to global warming, and even pose a significant threat to people from wildfire." The California Independent System Operator, or CAL-ISO, approved the project in August 2006, but opposition groups delayed approval by the CPUC until last December a delay of two and a half years.
The fight over Sunrise Powerlink illustrates the issue: how to balance the need for greater amounts of clean electricity with the equally important mission of maintaining the integrity of the environment along the path the energy must travel. There are the benefits of renewable power: less greenhouse gas and particulate emissions, long-term energy price stability, and increased in-state economic benefits from new jobs and construction. But also important is protecting vulnerable species, and the vistas and open spaces that are part of our state and national heritage. Unwise and inefficient development puts a strain on natural resources that is incommensurate with value of any infrastructure benefits that may result.
The Sunrise Powerlink is just one of many projects planned for the development of electricity from renewable energy. At present there are 16,000 megawatts of wind projects and 22,000 megawatts of solar projects in line for interconnection with the California Independent System Operator, and almost all will require upgrades in the existing transmission network.
The Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative, or RETI, is a consortium consisting of the CPUC, the CEC, the CAL-ISO and representatives of publicly owned utilities. RETI's task is to identify competitive renewable energy zones for development throughout California and neighboring states. RETI ranks the renewable energy zones based on access to the largest amount of renewable resources and the least amount of cost. The hope is the RETI will bring order and evenhanded rationality to the process of building new transmission capacity for renewable power, ensure that all stakeholders have a voice, and protect scenic beauty and biological diversity.
California's transmission issues are a microcosm of transmission constraints that exist nationally. As a leader in renewable energy development and environmental protection, California can show the way to balance two important competing priorities and develop renewable power in a responsible way.
Ari L. Bessendorf is an associate in the Los Angeles office of Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy LLP, an international law firm. He is a specialist in energy project finance.
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