For nearly six years, officials debated the best places to build renewable energy projects in the desert, culminating in a massive draft document known as the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. But it’s still far from clear how that energy would be transmitted from the desert to the urban centers that need it most.
The long-awaited plan – which was released earlier this year – would reshape renewable energy development across 22.5 million acres of California desert, allowing solar, wind and geothermal projects to be fast-tracked in so-called “development focus areas.” Under the plan’s preferred alternative, one of those development areas would cover large swaths of eastern Riverside County, while another would span much of Imperial County.
But while the plan makes room for up to 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy in the desert, most of the transmission lines needed to carry that energy don’t yet exist. And the plan doesn’t go into detail about where those power lines might be built – a source of concern for environmental activists and desert preservationists, who say the lines can break up critical habitats and disrupt scenic landscapes.
“They had a whole transmission planning subgroup and everything,” said Kim Delfino, director of California programs for Defenders of Wildlife. “We thought there would be a little bit more in there.”
Regulators say they never intended to map specific transmission routes in the renewable energy plan, which would guide development through 2040. The plan, they point out, doesn’t mandate specific energy projects, and it’s hard to know where to put transmission lines without first knowing where energy developers want to build.
But for a renewable energy blueprint so dependent on new transmission, the plan contains remarkably little detail about where those power lines might go. And if recent transmission projects are anything to go by, some of those lines could be just as controversial as the renewable energy projects they’re meant to support.
The amount of solar, wind and geothermal energy that’s actually developed could depend on how many transmission lines end up being approved. Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission who worked on the renewable energy plan, noted that transmission lines can take years to approve and build.
“I don’t think we necessarily can make the assumption that transmission will be developed to the extent needed, within the timeframe of the plan” she said in an interview last month. “Everybody knows that building transmission can be challenging. It can take time.”
Profits and pitfalls
While the renewable energy plan doesn’t route specific transmission lines, it does analyze how much transmission would be needed to support up to 20,000 megawatts of solar, wind and geothermal energy in the desert.
The plan’s authors convened a “transmission technical group” of regulators, utility executives and consultants, which determined that power lines that are currently under development – or that recently came online – can carry 7,500 megawatts of new generation. That leaves 12,500 megawatts for which new lines could be required, with eastern Riverside County and the Imperial Valley likely having the greatest need for new transmission.
The average power line, experts say, costs about $1 million per mile to build. Some are even more expensive: San Diego Gas & Electric’s Sunrise Powerlink transmission line, which carries electricity from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County, cost more than $16 million per mile, for a total price tag of nearly $2 billion.
Cost, however, generally isn’t a major obstacle for investor-owned utilities, which are heavily incentivized to build transmission lines. Southern California Edison, for instance, gets a guaranteed profit of about 10 percent on transmission projects, as sanctioned by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Carl Zichella, director of western transmission for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Energy Program, said such incentives encourage utilities to invest in major transmission infrastructure that might not otherwise be built.
“I don’t want to infer that utilities are out there madly planning new transmission to soak ratepayers,” Zichella said.
The bigger roadblock to new transmission could be environmental conflicts. While power lines don’t have as much of an impact on desert ecosystems as large-scale renewable energy projects do, they can still fragment terrestrial habitats and endanger birds if poorly routed, environmental groups say.
Those groups cried foul during San Diego Gas & Electric’s attempts to permit the Sunrise Powerlink line, which originally would have snaked through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The line was eventually rerouted around the park, but it still cuts through peninsular bighorn sheep habitat, said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“There was so much litigation in so many different venues that I couldn’t even keep it all straight,” Anderson said.
While power lines leave ample space for terrestrial wildlife to pass under them, some species – including bighorn sheep – are hesitant to cross underneath the wires, while others are scared of traversing the access roads that usually accompany transmission lines, Anderson said. Transmission projects can also involve the construction of new substations.
“Where you’re slicing and dicing up habitats into smaller and smaller pieces, that leads to greater segmentation of habitat over time,” Anderson said.
Other power lines have proven controversial because they would interrupt scenic vistas. Southern California Edison’s proposed Coolwater-Lugo project, for instance, has generated fierce opposition from residents of the Lucerne and Apple valleys. The line would stretch from Daggett to Hesperia in San Bernardino County, a distance of about 70 miles.
Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch, a grassroots environmental group, described Coolwater-Lugo as the “Pandora’s box” for big energy. The transmission line and the large-scale energy projects it would make possible, Emmerich said, would threaten the area’s rural character and desert beauty.
“Visually speaking, it’s very important,” he said. “A transmission line can change the character of an entire viewscape.”
The route not taken
The renewable energy plan would allow transmission projects to be fast-tracked both inside and outside the designated energy zones, which is sure to concern some environmental groups and desert preservationists.
But the document would only fast-track power lines proposed for existing transmission corridors, said Scott Flint, the California Energy Commission’s program manager for the renewable energy plan.
“We’re not identifying new corridors, and the plan would not cover a new corridor,” Flint said. “That would be a totally separate planning process, to open a new corridor.”
Some transmission corridors, Flint added, are currently empty even though they have been approved for power lines. Most corridors, though – including the one that runs along the Interstate 10 – already contain transmission infrastructure. Some of those corridors could be widened under the renewable energy plan.
Zichella said avoiding new corridors is a good strategy for minimizing the environmental impacts of transmission lines.
“Nobody likes transmission. Nobody likes to look at transmission,” he said. “You don’t want to keep creating spaghetti all over the landscape.”
The renewable energy plan’s “transmission technical group” was tasked mainly with determining how many acres might be needed for new power lines. They calculated that under the plan’s preferred alternative, as many as 33,000 acres could be needed for new transmission in the desert – a substantial footprint, but a far cry from the nearly 300,000 acres that could be used for renewable energy projects.
While the transmission group created several maps outlining where new power lines might go, it cautioned that the public shouldn’t take those maps literally. Most of the prospective transmission routes, it noted, are simply straight line segments drawn between existing electrical connections.
“The new transmission lines identified through this exercise have not been evaluated for their specific locations, constructability, desirability, cost or likelihood of their successful permitting,” the group wrote. “They also have not been studied by transmission planning groups to identify reliability concerns or effects on other transmission systems.”
A previous state effort, the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative, employed a fundamentally different planning strategy. In response to the renewable energy “gold rush” of the late 2000s and early 2010s – which saw hundreds of large-scale projects proposed across the southwestern United States – policymakers started mapping power lines that could serve as many of those prospective projects as possible.
Ultimately, most of those projects were never built, and neither were most of the transmission lines. Southern California Edison interconnections manager Kevin Richardson, a leading member of the renewable energy plan’s transmission group, said the earlier initiative was criticized for putting the cart before the horse.
“Not enough time and detail went into figuring out the best places to put the (electricity) generators, from an environmental standpoint,” Richardson said. “With the (Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan), a lot more emphasis went into that.”
Given that past experience, Richardson said, it made sense to take a more “conceptual” approach to transmission planning this time around. Still, he added, the transmission group’s members “weren’t given that much time” to do their work.
While the California Independent System Operator’s annual transmission plans are developed over half a year, Richardson said, his transmission group had only a few weeks to do its final analysis. Many of the transmission lines that were shown in the group’s report, he added, were drawn in Microsoft PowerPoint.
“It was more of a spreadsheet analysis,” he said. “We weren’t using the technical tools that we usually use.”
No transmission needed?
For local groups intent on keeping large-scale renewable energy out of the desert, the question isn’t where transmission lines should be built – it’s whether they’re needed at all.
These groups see the renewable energy plan as an existential threat to the desert’s delicate ecosystems and iconic landscapes, and many of them are motivated by a desire to keep power lines out of their lines of sight. About 250 people showed up at a public meeting on Southern California Edison’s proposed Coolwater-Lugo line earlier this year, and nearly 800 people have signed a petition urging regulators to prioritize rooftop solar over large-scale renewable energy projects in the desert.
David Garmon, president of the Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy, started the petition. Garmon played a key role in fighting the proposed Sunrise Powerlink route through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, arguing the power line would impact tourism and burden San Diego Gas & Electric’s ratepayers with nearly $2 billion in costs.
Garmon has also criticized regulators for guaranteeing utilities substantial profits on transmission projects.
Utilities are “doing an extraordinary service by maintaining the grid and reliable energy, so I’m very much in favor of them being able to make a profit,” Garmon said. “I just want to see them do it in a way that saves us some of the costs of these transmission lines, and some of the environmental consequences of these utility-scale projects in the desert.”
Local activists see the Coolwater-Lugo project as a particularly egregious example of profiteering, arguing that the proposed transmission line is unnecessary.
For years, Southern California Edison has argued that Coolwater-Lugo will be necessary to relieve congestion as more renewable energy projects are built in the desert. But NRG Energy announced in October that it would close its gas-fired Coolwater power plant Jan. 1, leading the California Public Utilities Commission to ask Edison last week whether a new transmission line is still necessary.
Southern California Edison spokesman David Song declined to comment on what the gas-fired power plant’s impending closure means for the utility’s transmission plans.
Most desert preservation groups agree that California needs to scale up renewable energy generation to limit climate change, but they say regulators have underestimated the amount of energy that can be harnessed by rooftop solar panels. One of the main benefits of rooftop solar, they argue, is that it doesn’t require costly transmission infrastructure.
“You’ll get immediate carbon reductions, greenhouse gas reductions, and then the ratepayers will be saving for the next 30 or 40 years,” said Neil Nadler, a member of the Alliance for Desert Preservation, a grassroots group based in Apple Valley. “We’re going to save hundreds of billions of dollars, and we’re going to save the desert from being destroyed.”
Policymakers and renewable energy experts, though, are far less confident that rooftop solar can be scaled up quickly enough to meet California’s ambitious climate goals, which include reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. While they acknowledge rooftop solar’s vast potential – a recent study found that Los Angeles County alone has more than 19,000 megawatts of potential – they say an all-of-the-above strategy is needed to ramp up renewable energy generation.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting for the perfect technology that’s going to solve all of our problems to appear,” Douglas, from the California Energy Commission, said. “We’ve got to take steps now with the technology that we’ve got.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding