Lorelei Oviatt is worried about power lines that don’t exist.
Kern County is experiencing a boom in solar and wind energy development in the Mojave Desert and Tehachapi mountains. But those alternative energy projects won’t be viable, the county planning director says, unless there is some way to transfer the power they produce in the remote areas where the wind blows and the sun shines to the urban areas where the power is needed.
Kern County, Oviatt fears, is headed for a transmission shortage that could slow the boom, forcing developers to abandon projects and killing good jobs and tax revenue that the county desperately needs.
The problem in her view is a bureaucracy slow to decide where and when new transmission lines should be approved.
Kern County lived with a transmission bottleneck for more than a decade. It was broken last year by construction of a massive new power line along the eastern edge of the Tehachapi Mountains.
Southern California Edison’s Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project – a collection of new and re-worked high-power electrical lines that links Los Angeles to Kern County’s alternative energy hot zone between Mojave and Tehachapi – began the environmental review process before the California Public Utilities Commission in 2004.
Five years later, in December 2009, the backbone of the project made the connection to Kern County with the construction of the new “Windhub” substation on Oak Creek Road west of Mojave.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Major wind and solar projects were just beginning to come before the Kern County Board of Supervisors for approval and the Edison line offered those projects about 4,500 megawatts of transmission capacity.
But, it turns out, 4,500 megawatts of capacity is probably not going to be enough.
Edison knows of 8,600 megawatts of power projects actively being proposed or developed here, Oviatt said.
Some of those megawatts are being cleared for construction by Oviatt’s staff. Kern County is currently processing or has approved projects that promise 2,905 megawatts of photovoltaic solar in the Mojave Desert and the Central Valley and 3,476 megawatts of wind power.
More major transmission lines are needed now, she said. But that is easier said than done.
If a solar or wind project is viable, Oviatt said, she can get it through the county’s clearance process in 12 to 18 months.
That turnaround speed is critical for project developers because millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds are on the table, a critical financial incentive.
“These projects need to be online in 2012 for ARRA funding,” Oviatt said.
But the transmission projects needed to serve those projects take far longer to develop. The five-year environmental and construction timeline for the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project is a good example.
A coalition of the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Energy Commission and the California Independent System Operator – which manages the state’s power grid – are constantly studying the best locations for new power transition lines.
But, Oviatt said, launching a project into the real world is difficult.
Les Starck, vice president for local public affairs for Southern California Edison, said once a decision to place a line is made, and the company or agency that will build the line is determined, there is an extensive public and environmental process that must be followed before construction can begin.
State and federal environmental clearance must be given. Multiple regulators must review and approve the plan. State and federal forest and wildlife agencies must sign off on lines that go through national forests and other public lands.
And, Starck said, the whole process must be extremely open and transparent to the average person. Protests of massive lines of power towers are not uncommon.
“It’s a very complex process to get the approval to be able to build the transmission,” he said.
It does take longer than most wind and solar projects need to get approved and begin construction, he said, but there are ways to speed up the process.
However the process does have to be followed and it has to be followed correctly, Starck said.
“Transmission is getting licensed in this state,” he said. “We support the process because it comes up with great decisions. We think it’s necessarily long. These (power lines) are there for a long time – 50 years or more. We want to get it right.”
Oviatt said everyone recognizes the need for new transmission lines. But not everyone agrees on the pace development of those lines is taking.
“There’s a lot of commitment in Sacramento,” Oviatt agreed, but, “We are now outsiders bringing new eyes to the situation and to us it doesn’t look like movement – it looks like study.”
Eric Flodine with real estate development firm Strata Equity of San Diego is focused on getting a 350-megawatt photovoltaic solar project approved by Kern County.
“Fortunately we’re in Kern County because the planning department and the board of supervisors – they get it,” he said.
Right now his firm is working with a couple of other developers to build a right-of-way that will get their power to a new Southern California Edison substation that is part of the 4,500-megawatt Tehachapi Renewables line.
It is critical, Flodine said, to make that interconnection with the transmission grid.
“If you don’t have a transmission route, then all you have is dirt,” he said. “We have a project in southeast Kern. We call it a project, but it’s really not a project unless you have transmission.”
Linda Parker of the Kern Wind Energy Association remembers the bad old days when Tehachapi windfarms generated more power than fit into the 66-kilovolt power line that carried the energy from its windmills to the larger electricity market.
Development of new wind resources stopped because there simply was no way to get the power to where it was needed. The Edison line was the long-anticipated solution to the limbo Kern County’s alternative energy market lived in.
Parker had no idea that within a year of its arrival in Kern County, she’d be back where she had been for the past decade – worrying that there won’t be enough transmission resources to meet the demand from new generation projects being planned here.
“We’re rural. We have to have transmission come to us,” Parker said. “The county doesn’t want to take 24 more months for (regulators) to decide on something and then have another three years to build it.”
Stephanie McCorkle, director of communications and public relations for the California Independent System Operator, said the collaborative of regulators has already worked hard to streamline the approval process.
In recent years, she said, the CAISO board has approved $9 billion of transmission line projects that can carry 12,300 megawatts of power. Edison’s Tehachapi line represents more than one-third of that total – a huge dedication of resources for Kern.
McCorkle said regulators and system operators are focused on meeting deadlines to have alternative sources of power spark 20 percent of California’s power by the end of this year and 33 percent of the state’s power be generated from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2020.
“The good news is we are keeping up, though barely,” she said.
But there has to be a process to ensure the new transmission lines are needed.
“What has happened in the past is our queue has been inundated with projects – not all of them viable,” she said.
In the end, there will need to be more transmission lines, Starck said
“We think more transmission lines will be necessary if we’re going to hit 33 percent,” he said.
But the process to build the lines must balance speed with careful review.
Oviatt’s clock, she said, is just set on a different pace.
She sees a down economy where residential and commercial land development is at a standstill. Conflicts between utilities and urban growth can be minimized by building powerlines first and then letting cities grow around them when the economy rebounds.
“Now is the perfect time to site new transmission lines,” she said.
But more importantly for Oviatt is the financial boon she sees hitting Kern County as billions of dollars in outside investment flows here.
“This is the best thing that has happened to Kern County since we discovered oil,” she said.
She points to the massive ranks of 140-foot-long windmill blades stored like spoons in a drawer on the grounds of the Mojave Air and Space Port and the long lines of train cars off-loading tower components for installation.
“The motels in Mojave are full. The restaurants are full. The doughnut shops are doing a booming business,” she said.
There has to be a way, she argues, to make sure the boom doesn’t end.
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