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Cities Struggle With Access to Green Energy Sources

June 9, 2009 at 4:35 PM EDT
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In cities across the country, officials are faced with the task of getting renewable energy from the outskirts of town to the urban centers where demand is greatest. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports from Los Angeles.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, the problem of getting green energy to where it’s needed. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our Science Unit report.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: David Nahai is trying to figure out how to get more electricity to Los Angeles. As general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, he’s trying to help reach L.A.’s goal of using 35 percent renewable energy — wind, solar and geothermal — by the year 2020.

But it is not easy. Renewable energy usually is located far away from urban centers that need the power.

Nahai flew us 100 miles to the Mojave Desert to show the latest effort by Los Angeles to capture that power: a new wind farm that his department has built in the barren Tehachapi Mountains. It’s the largest city-owned wind farm in the nation.

DAVID NAHAI, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power: The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power just finds itself at the forefront of a debate that is going to repeat itself again and again throughout the nation. And it’s really the central question: How do we gain access to renewable energy, while at the same time building the transmission to bring it to population centers?

SPENCER MICHELS: To hook the energy from these 80 wind turbines into the grid and make it useful, L.A. had to build new transmission lines and upgrade existing ones at a cost of $16 million. It took more than five years to get approval and to build.

DAVID NAHAI: With conventional fuels, we can take the fuel to the power plant. We can transport natural gas; we can transport coal to a power plant. With renewable energy, that is not possible. You have to go where that energy is located.

Looking elsewhere

SPENCER MICHELS: Nahai is also looking elsewhere. He wants to use the power generated by this bubbling mud field in Southern California's Imperial Valley. The super-hot water that becomes geothermal power is sometimes called the holy grail of renewable energy, because, unlike wind and solar, it is constant and not intermittent, not dependent on the weather.

Ernie Higgins, the general manager of geothermal operations at CalEnergy, says this resource is just waiting to be tapped.

ERNIE HIGGINS, CalEnergy: It operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Specifically, in the Imperial Valley, we could produce easily probably 2,500 megawatts. We're currently producing 342 megawatts, so there's a big potential here.

Agreeing on construction

SPENCER MICHELS: The problem is not how to harness this rich subterranean energy source whose steam is turned into electricity in these power plants, but how to transport it from this remote location to Los Angeles some 160 miles away.

To do that, it has to be part of the grid, the infrastructure of 157,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that operate across America, connecting thousands of power sources to substations and homes.

But the transmission capacity is sub-par and out of date, according to former Imperial County Supervisor Andy Horne.

ANDY HORNE, Former Imperial County Supervisor: Now, Sunrise power, I think, will start right here about the horizon area. You can see there's a big substation out there.

SPENCER MICHELS: He says no new transmission line has been built in the region in 30 years.

ANDY HORNE: This was the last big transmission line built in California. And so, with the infrastructure behind the curve in terms of being able to deliver those renewables to the population centers, like San Diego and Los Angeles and San Francisco, we need these new transmission lines to be built.

SPENCER MICHELS: It's a problem not just in California. While the demand for electricity has risen 25 percent nationally since 1990, construction of transmission lines has decreased about 30 percent. That's led to congestion on the lines and power outages.

So why not build more power lines? First, it's expensive.

The president has included in his stimulus package up to $11 billion to create new transmission lines like these. But the industry and federal regulators say that is far too little, that it will cost between $200 billion and $300 billion to create enough new transmission lines and to start shaping up the nation's electrical grid.

But it's not just the money that has stalled the building of power lines. It's getting everyone to agree where the lines should be built. And nowhere is that more evident than in the debate about how to get the energy from this bubbling mud along the shores of the Salton Sea near the Mexican border up to major urban areas.

Nahai's utility wants to build a transmission line called Green Path North going from Imperial County into the Los Angeles power grid. It would stretch more than 100 miles. Its towers could be 150 feet high.

APRIL SALL, California Desert Coalition: This is the I-10 corridor, and it continues on into Los Angeles.

Is it green?

SPENCER MICHELS: April Sall supports green energy. But as the director of the California Desert Coalition, she also wants to preserve the landscape.

APRIL SALL: The original routes that were proposed were in highly environmental sensitive areas. And so, when you're blading and destroying pristine habitat, is that green? In this case, it certainly is not. And so there are better places to do these projects, and we need to look for the least impact.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sall says the lines were originally proposed to go through areas like this wildlife preserve just north of Palm Springs and cut through desert communities like this one all the way to the Salton Sea.

APRIL SALL: This is not environmentalists trying to stop renewable energy. There's a right way to do this, and there's a wrong way to do this. And we need to learn from the mistakes of the past and go about this in a smarter and more intelligent way.

Use new technology, use existing corridors, and get power to the source of need with the least distance so that we don't have transmission loss.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sall would like to put the power lines along freeway routes, but that isn't always easy.

She is not alone in her concerns.

AUSTIN PUGLISIS: See that ridge up there? The towers would have either been on them or just behind them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Five years ago, Austin Puglisis and his wife bought a 55-acre parcel in a spectacular desert canyon to build his dream house. He got the permits and drilled a well and was ready to build.

I don't see any house.

AUSTIN PUGLISIS: Well, everything came to a screeching halt.


AUSTIN PUGLISIS: In April of 2006, a friend of mine talked to me about plans that she had just learned about, that the city of Los Angeles had been planning already for years to build high-voltage transmission lines through this area, and the original plan called for 200-foot-tall towers. And I really didn't like the idea of living the rest of my life under their shadow.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nahai says L.A. Power and Water is trying to prove its environmental credentials proposing seven different routes in hopes of finding the one that is the most efficient and has the least environmental impact.

DAVID NAHAI: There are local interests who are concerned, obviously, about the aesthetic effects, the environmental effects.

For instance, one of the alignments for Green Path would pass through 10 separate municipalities, each with their own concerns, each with their own needs. So it becomes, I think, a very, very difficult prospect.

Federal coordination needed

DAN KAMMEN, University of California, Berkeley: What do you do if you want to go from just a tiny bit of renewables to a lot?

SPENCER MICHELS: Dan Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California at Berkeley, has been studying transmission lines and renewable energy. He says the decision-making process has to go beyond the state of California.

DAN KAMMEN: The real issue for transmission is that it requires federal coordination and oversight. You can't do it state by state. You have to build out regional resources.

And so this is another place where the Obama administration's role is going to be vital. It's not just the amount of money, but it's also coordinating what happens around the country.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nahai worries that will take too long.

DAVID NAHAI: To have some kind of nationally coordinated transmission plan is certainly desirable, but we also have to be careful about the time that that's going to take. I believe it will take a long time. And as I say, in the meantime, we've got deadlines that we have to deal with.

SPENCER MICHELS: Los Angeles officials are seeing firsthand that getting green power is taking longer than they thought. They just pushed back the start date of Green Path North by three years, to after the year 2014.