Monday, June 16, 2008

Build one of the world’s largest solar-power operations in the Southern California desert and surround it with plants that run on wind and underground heat.

Yet San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (SDG&E) and its potential partners face fierce opposition because the plan also calls for a 150-mile, high-voltage transmission line that would cut through pristine parkland to reach the nation’s eighth-largest city.

The showdown over how to get renewable energy to consumers will likely play out elsewhere around the country as well, as state regulators require electric utilities to rely less on coal and natural gas to fire their plants - the biggest source of carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S.

Providers of renewable power covet cheap land, abundant sunshine and wind in places such as West Texas, Montana, Wyoming and California‘s Mojave Desert and Imperial Valley. But utility executives say no one will build plants without power lines to connect those remote spots to big cities.

“This is a classic chicken and the egg,” said Michael R. Niggli, president of Sempra Energy’s Sempra Generation, whose company’s utility business includes SDG&E. “No one can develop a project if they can’t send [the electricity] anywhere. You need transmission.”

SDG&E’s $1.5-billion power line would cut 23 miles through the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a spot known for its hiking trails, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti and spectacular mountain views.

“This transmission line will cross through some of the most scenic areas of San Diego,” said David Hogan of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It would just ruin it with giant, metal industrial power lines.”

Environmentalists are pushing for renewable power to be generated closer to heavily populated areas, rather than brought in from distant sites. They point to Southern California Edison’s ambitious plan for solar panels on Los Angeles-area rooftops as an example of a better approach.

Utilities say the roof panels will help but won’t produce nearly enough power to satisfy state requirements.

The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote as soon as August on SDG&E’s proposed Sunrise Powerlink, which would carry enough power for about 750,000 homes - or more than half of the utility’s customers.

Regulators in 29 states and the District of Columbia are forcing utilities to boost the use of renewable energy to run electric plants.

California has been among the most aggressive, with the state’s three investor-owned utilities required to get 20 percent of power from renewables by the end of 2010.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, wants to reach 33 percent by 2020.

SDG&E, with 1.4 million customers, is California’s laggard, getting just 6 percent of its power from renewables. PG&E Corp.’s Pacific Gas and Electric, with 5.1 million customers, gets 12 percent. Edison International’s Southern California Edison, with 4.8 million customers, gets 16 percent.

Nationwide, utilities get only 2 percent of electricity from renewables, said Jone-Linn Wang, managing director of the global power group at Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Edison hopes to incorporate more solar and wind power by building a transmission line from the Mojave Desert to the Los Angeles area.

“It’s a trade-off,” said Stuart Hemphill, Edison’s vice president for renewable and alternative power. “Clean energy perhaps requires building infrastructure in potentially sensitive areas. There’s no way around it.”

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