Saturday, June 21, 2008

Solar plant fought by ... environmentalists?

Portland Press Herald

huge facility would be built in a remote California desert, but the power lines would be in scenic areas.

By ELLIOT SPAGAT, The Associated Press

June 16, 2008

SAN DIEGO — It seems like an idea any environmentalist would embrace: 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. 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 and abundant sunshine and wind in places like 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 Niggli, chief operating officer of Sempra Energy's utilities business, which 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.

SDG&E's proposed route through Anza-Borrego, California's largest state park, ranked second-worst among seven possible routes studied by state and federal regulators for environmental damage.

The plan calls for 141 towers through the park at an average height of 130 feet. The entire route would include 554 towers from the wind-swept desert of the Imperial Valley to a site near the Pacific Ocean in San Diego.

SDG&E would build the power line but buy the juice from a host of generating companies whose proposed plants harness energy from the sun, wind and underground heat.

The most ambitious generation project relies on a commercially untested technology for a gigantic solar plant.

Stirling Energy Systems Inc., a Phoenix startup, wants to build 12,000 solar dishes, each four stories tall, near El Centro, about 100 miles east of San Diego. That plant would initially feed into an existing power line and provide enough electricity for more than 200,000 homes, said Bruce Osborn, Stirling's chief operating officer. Stirling, however, would need more transmission capacity to pursue plans to triple the size of the plant, he said.

The technology relies on mirrored dishes collecting sunlight to heat gas and drive the cylinders of an engine. It has been tested on six solar dishes in New Mexico but now would move to mass production – drawing plenty of skepticism from environmentalists.

"It's what we call new product introduction," responds Osborn, a former project manager at Ford Motor Co. "Everyone who builds a widget does the same thing. This is a big widget."

Even without Stirling, SDG&E has other, traditional renewable power generators knocking on its door with deals to provide power – far more than the utility could accommodate, said Sempra Energy's Niggli.

Environmentalists have dueled for years with Sempra Energy, SDG&E's parent company, over operations just south of the border in Mexico that help supply power to the western U.S.

Critics claim Sempra built the plants in Mexico to skirt more rigorous environmental reviews in the U.S. They suggest SDG&E's proposed power line, which would start near the Mexican border, is part of a disguised effort to get electricity into the U.S. from Mexico, where Sempra has an electricity plant and the first liquefied natural gas terminal on the West Coast.

SDG&E dismisses those claims as a conspiracy theory.

"It's like the myth that won't die," Niggli said.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't fall for the renewable energy versus land conservation framework - it's pure industry greenwashing designed by the industry to create a let's-him-and-you-fight situation in which those who want real solutions to energy and environmental needs are positioned to fight each other rather than work together. Some facts:

Fact: Stirling Energy Systems (SES) admitted in CPUC hearings that it could build its proposed, if fanciful, 300 MW first phase without a new powerline.

Fact: The US DOE in an April 15, 2008, research plan on page 107 said that it assumed a mean time between failure (MTBF) for the SES technology of only 200 hours. This means that each of the 12,000 dishes would be expected to break down about 18 times per year (assuming 10 hours of operation a day). In contrast reliable existing energy generators (wind, natural gas, steam turbines) have a MTBF of less than once per year. Despite over two decades of research, the SES technology is still no where near "utility grade" in terms of reliability.

Fact: SES currently has only 6 hand-built prototypes of its dish technology undergoing testing at Sandia National Lab, yet it claimed it could scale up to 12,000 operational units in less than 4 years.

Fact: A 2007 report from Navigant Consulting, Inc. (NYSE: NCI), a firm with more than 1,900 global consultants, estimated that the SES technology would cost about $6/Watt installed capacity, whereas SoCal Edison is estimating that its recently announced roof top PV solar project in the LA region will cost about $4/Watt and would also not require spending money on a big powerline.

Fact: SDG&E's parent company, Sempra Energy, just completed construction of a major LNG facility in Baja Mexico.

Fact: Sempra owns a large natural gas fired power station in Baja Mexico.

Fact: Sempra could build a second natural gas fired power station in Baja Mexico in less than 4 years, about the time it would take to build the proposed powerline, or provide LNG to a new power plant built by an allied company.

Fact: Federal law prohibits reserving the use of powerlines for any particular type of technology, so SDG&E can't promise to use its proposed powerline only or even mostly for renewable energy -- once the line is built Sempra can use it for any type of power it wants.

Fact: According to CA Energy Commission data between 1980 and 2006 SDG&E ratepayers on average paid 23% more for power than the ratepayers in the rest of California, despite the less regulated "business friendly" nature of conservative San Diego, yet CalFires reports that failed SDG&E powerline equipment was responsible for 3 of the recent devastating fires -- where is the money going?

Question: Why would SDG&E. the California utility with the lowest use of renewable energy in California, propose to use an experimental solar technology to justify building a ~$1.5 billion fire-spawning powerline from just north of the Mexican border to within spitting distance of the LA electricity market rather than invest this money in rooftop PV or other proven renewable and other locally-based energy generation technologies?

Answer: Because SDG&E/Sempra would make a guaranteed return on investment on the powerline paid for by ratepayers, create new cutomers for Sempra's LNG import facility in Mexico, and get cheap transmission rates to ship power from Mexico to LA. Sempra is about making money for its shareholders, not looking for the best solution to energy needs. Let them make their claims, but look at alternatives. Just because SDG&E/Sempra says this line is good for ratepayers and the environment doesn't mean this is true. There are cheaper, cleaner solutions to southern California's (and America's) electrical energy needs including local generation, upgrading existing powerlines and using energy more carefully.