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Week of 1.16.09

Transcript: Power Struggle

BRANCACCIO: You might not be losing sleep about the state of America's electric power grid, but maybe you should. It's every bit as important as the interstate highway system, but hasn't had an overhaul in decades. Renewable power will require a vast new grid system. The thorny issue of how to build it—or even if to build it—has government, energy companies and environmental groups locked in major combat. Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and Producer Na Eng report on the power struggle now playing out.

HINOJOSA: This long stretch of desert landscape in California holds some precious natural resources that will be key to solving the nation's energy crisis. In places like the Imperial Valley and the Mojave Desert, you can find ample sunlight, fierce Santa Ana winds and heat stored beneath the desert they have the potential to power cities hundreds of miles away.

Here in the backcountry of southern California the wind blows hard and the sun shines almost year round. So a lot of people think this is the perfect place to develop renewable energy. But to in order to get that energy to the places where people need it most in the cities. Californians may need to build more transmission lines. And that's where the debate really heats up.

California has set out to build a "green superhighway". A slew of new, gigantic long-distance transmission lines that could significantly increase the amount of clean energy that gets on the electricity grid.

Given the urgency of climate change, many national environmental groups have gotten on board.

ZOI: The grid needs modernization.

HINOJOSA: Cathy Zoi heads the Alliance for Climate Protection, a group founded by Al Gore. She sees a big role for transmission lines - preferably efficient, underground ones—as one part of our national energy strategy.

zoi:We need to connect the different balkanized regions of the grid together, and we need to build new power lines from places where there's a where there's a huge amount of renewable resource potential, but, there's no power lines now. So, through the Midwest Corridor, or in the Southwest of the U.S. where we've got abundant wind and abundant solar.

HINOJOSA: And in California, the battle over one proposed power line in particular gives a glimpse of what's ahead for all of us. Across the country, communities are weighing new transmission proposals. Check out this map showing possible routes just in the western United States. Because California is so often a model for other states, the choices they make here will likely shape energy policy in the rest of the country.

The fight in California is over a line called the Sunrise Powerlink. It's a two billion dollar transmission line that would run 120-miles from the Imperial Valley to the San Diego area. Right now it's being sold as a way to bring clean energy to Southern California. But some people see a case of "greenwashing"—a term you're probably going to hear a lot more of. It basically means disguising a dirty project as a green one.

BERGLUND: You can see things on a horse you'll never see otherwise.

HINOJOSA: That's true.

BERGLUND: Because you're riding along, you're only going this fast, and you look and you say, "I never saw that before."

HINOJOSA: But dirty or clean—many who live along the power line's route, like Dennis Berglund, adamantly oppose it.

The line would run just a stone's throw away from Berglund's 64-acre spread. He fears high voltage transmission towers would alter this landscape forever.

Berglund: If you lose those lands, you never get them back. Once you scar these lands with all the construction that's required and all these little roads, they claim that there—they—they—they re-vegetate, but they don't. You tear a plant out, you don't get that plant back.

HINOJOSA: And in this dry, fire-prone area, residents are especially worried that more transmission lines will lead to more dangerous, raging wildfires.

Conservationists also point out that the construction of the lines could destroy sensitive habitats. Berglund's neighbor, Denise Morse, says there's more wildlife than meets the eye in these desert hills.

HINOJOSA: Some people say, "You know what? It's pretty out here but there's just a lot of open land and it looks kind of brown and deserty. What's there to protect? We need renewable energy with new lines."

morse: Look closer. Look at the big sage. Look at all the different birds that are hopping from one bush to another. You're—you'd just be amazed at—the number of animals this—this habitat supports.

HINOJOSA: In fact, the utility company had initially proposed a route that cut across a treasured state park. The public outcry forced the company to change course, but the new route still crosses a national forest and federally managed land.

Morse: This is not our land. The land out here is the Cleveland National Forest. We have a lot of federal land, which is everybody's land. This is everybody's backyard.

HINOJOSA: Oddly enough, everyone in this fight is claiming to have the best interests of the environment at heart—even the power company that wants to build the line.

Niggli: This is the start of the green energy era for San Diego County.

Mike Niggli is the chief operating officer of San Diego Gas and Electric - or SDG&E. That's the utility company pitching the Sunrise Powerlink as the green solution for San Diego.

Niggli: This is actually a solution to many of the issues that we have for—reliable and economic power supply into San Diego, along with getting the opportunity for us to bring clean energy into the city.

HINOJOSA: The Sunrise Powerlink has some powerful allies: including governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He argues the transmission line is essential to meet California's renewable energy goals... which have been applauded for being the most aggressive in the nation and may soon get tougher. Californians aim to get a third of their electricity from clean energy sources by 2020.

Gov. arnold Schwarzenegger: One of the great things about California, of course, is that we always push the envelope. That is why today I'm proposing that we set our sights even higher, as I said earlier, to 33 percent by the year 2020. This will be the most aggressive target in the nation.

HINOJOSA: To meet these new, state requirements, San Diego Gas and Electric says it has contracted with renewable companies like Stirling Energy Systems. The company is working on a cutting edge solar farm that will be located in the Imperial Valley. We visited their test site in New Mexico and spoke to the company's CEO Steve Cowman.

COWMAN: So each one of these dishes here could provide enough energy for 10 house holds.

HINOJOSA: These solar dishes act like sunflowers. Constantly turning their faces toward the sun. They focus the heat like a magnifying glass... firing up this Stirling engine... and converting heat into electricity. If all goes well, Stirling's commercial solar farm could light up half a million homes in San Diego.

So, have you ever heard anyone say, you know what, those huge solar dishes may be effective, but they're ugly, and I don't want them on my public open land space; it's an eyesore?

COWMAN: I think they're quite attractive.

HINOJOSA: You do?

COWMAN: I do.

HINOJOSA: What do you see in them that make them so attractive?

COWMAN: I mean, think about everything else we do; we import oil, we—we dig up coal, we create all these carbon problems.

You know, here you have an opportunity. Sunlight's falling on the earth, it's falling there anyway. We're capturing some of that sunlight. We're taking the heat from the sunlight, and converting it into electricity.

HINOJOSA: Skeptics argue Stirling's system has not yet been tested commercially. And it will cost way too much and take too long to produce in volume. Right now, Stirling only has six prototype dishes.

So you believe that you can actually take this and replicate it not by the dozens but by the hundreds, by the thousands?

Cowman: Think about Detroit. Detroit makes 15 million cars a year, at peak production, we are going to be making 100,000 engines;

HINOJOSA: A year. Well then somebody might say, well, that means it's going to take forever to actually make this massive and mainstream.

Cowman: No we'll being doing 100,000 within two and a half years.

HINOJOSA: If Stirling succeeds in turning this plot of land into one of the largest commercial solar farms in the world, the company says it will need the Sunrise Powerlink to deliver its energy to San Diego. Many renewable energy companies around the country have these same transmission concerns.

Cowman: If you can make electricity, but you can't get it to where it's needed, then it's—you know, it doesn't work. So, transmission is an integral part of the solution of actually being able to use renewables to fix the energy needs of places like San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco.

GRUENEICH: There are a lot of tough choices that are going to have to be made, not just in California, but nationally.

HINOJOSA: Dian Grueneich is a key decision maker on the Sunrise Powerlink. She is the lead regulator on transmission lines for California's Public Utility Commission. This obscure government agency has become the center of a major power struggle—one that is weighing both public needs and corporate interests.

Grueneich: Nobody likes transmission lines. But I think that as we switch to a carbon-neutral economy, which I think is essential, we are going to have to make some choices. And one of the choices that I believe we are going to have to make is to build more transmission lines to carry renewable power.

HINOJOSA: After three years of battling it out - we're there for the final showdown over the two billion dollar line in front of the utility commission. Dian Grueneich wants to see Sunrise built. But she faces a major hurdle. SDG&E won't make a binding written commitment that sunrise will in fact be a clean energy line.

GRUENEICH: SDG&E has stated—that they would commit to getting to what we call our 33 percent renewables standard. But whenever we press them on would you also commit in writing that this line will carry a majority of renewable power, they said, "no." So, that tells me something. It tells me that we then, as the regulators, need to step in and do more than just trust oral statements.

HINOJOSA: SDG&E is spending an estimated hundred and twenty-five million dollars making the case for the Sunrise Powerlink as a clean energy project.

Many local residents though simply do not trust the line will be as clean as advertised.

morse: When you look at a transmission line, how are you gonna know whether the—whether that is running on renewable energy? Once these lines are built, they can run whatever they want on them.

HINOJOSA: Dian Grueneich wants to see SDG&E commit to running quote "substantial amounts" of clean energy on the line - and she wants more than mere promises on TV ads or public statements.

GRUENEICH: My position was we needed to take steps to make sure that renewable power was actually delivered over the line, and not to just trust in what I call "the invisible hand of the market."

HINOJOSA: As the decision date approaches, the company balks at the clean energy guarantee. In fact, right before regulators cast their final vote, SDG&E raises the stakes. It threatens to withdraw the project altogether if it includes the clean energy written commitment. It cites unacceptable financial risks to its shareholders.

You say that Sunrise Power Link is about—clean energy transmission. But when SDG&E was asked to actually put that in writing—the company refused. Why?

NIGGLI: Well, actually, I don't think you need it in writing, because we've given that commitment to the Public Utilities Commission. And the Public Utilities Commission has the ability to make sure that we will—make good on that commitment. In fact, what the real commitment is we're gonna buy green energy. So we're in a situation where we're committing to go after renewable resources that will be utilized over the line. And we're gonna try to fill up the line that way.

HINOJOSA: But critics will say, "We need to have some actual papers. Something that holds SDG&E".

NIGGLI: I actually don't think we do. Because they have the California Public Utilities Commission—to watch over us. And they do watch over us.

HINOJOSA: Your company spends millions of dollars lobbying the California Public Utilities commission, and all of those commissioners are politically appointed. So when citizens say, "Well, that's why we need to have something that is more clear oversight, in writing."

NIGGLI: Well, actually, on a project like this, the way you make your case is—is through the actual case itself. In other words, the—the 20,000 or 30,000 pages of material we recently discussed is—is how you get your point across about what's important in this. And from the standpoint of the commissioners, they have to take the record. They actually utilize the record in their decision.

HINOJOSA: Actually, it's precisely that company record that concerns so many people about the sunrise project. We trekked out to this remote site about two hours east of San Diego to investigate. Few people have traveled the dirt roads to this out-of-the-way SDG&E substation near the Mexican border, but it is key to understanding those charges of "greenwashing" we mentioned earlier. There, we met with engineer Bill Powers, who has been keeping a close eye on SDG&E for years.

HINOJOSA: So—over there is Mexico.

POWERS: Right, that's Mexico.

HINOJOSA: And you're concerned about power and energy coming from Mexico is what?

POWERS: This transmission line's being sold as our ticket to a cleaner energy future. That's not what's going to happen on the ground. It will be sold that way and once that sales job is done, it will be a conventional line moving yet more dirty power out of Mexico and complicating your ability to deal with climate change, not getting there.

HINOJOSA: Powers pointed out how this substation takes fossil fuel coming from a less regulated power plant in Mexico and sends it out to the greater market in California.

And it's also the place where the Sunrise Powerlink would begin.

Powers: The line will begin here and then it will work its way about 120 miles into the periphery of San Diego, and they'll expand—greatly expand the substation at that point.

HINOJOSA: SDG&E's parent company - Sempra—has invested billions of dollars in natural gas. Which is cleaner than coal but still a big emitter of greenhouse gases. Bill Powers sees how the transmission line is the perfect way to profit from that investment.

HINOJOSA:So you look at these lines and you don't say, "Great way to transfer solar, wind power." You look at these transmission lines and you say they're just going to continue bringing in dirty energy?

POWERS: That's exactly right. And the reason for the whole discussion about renewable energy is because San Diego Gas and Electric knows that Californians are enamored with the idea of dealing with climate change, renewable energy. If you can cloak this as vital for renewable energy, you win. And that's the game.

HINOJOSA: Powers says he's learned over the years just how much SDG&E wants to win. In 2002, the company had proposed another power line that would carry fossil fuels. It was rejected for being unnecessary. Soon after, the company went looking for a new way to sell the same idea.

POWERS: And they came back, and had focus groups here in San Diego to say "Well, what would sell it?" Renewable energy would sell it. You put it in a green cloak, it will sell. Trust us.

HINOJOSA: It's the day of the vote, and some supporters of the Sunrise Powerlink show up at the hearing.

GROGAN: Imperial Valley has nearly 30% unemployment; and rank second in the state in foreclosures. Let me take back with me today a Christmas present for Imperial County. Sunrise.

HINOJOSA: There are also many opponents - some residents feel betrayed.

trafecanty: I can't believe that you are even considering whether to shove this line down our throats.

HINOJOSA: At the end of the battle- SDG&E wins. Four out of the five public utility commissioners vote in favor of Sunrise without any renewable energy conditions.

Dian Grueneich is the lone dissenting vote.

GRUENEICH: I was disappointed in the decision.

HINOJOSA: As the transmission debate moves to other states across the country. Grueneich sees Sunrise as a cautionary tale.

GRUENEICH: What we have learned from Sunrise—and I often think that this is a precursor to what's going to be happening nationally—is that, just because you build a transmission line, and just because you call it a transmission line that will be used for renewables, that does not mean it will be used for renewables.

HINOJOSA: Some people go even further. They question why California has focused so much attention on constructing new transmission lines at all... especially when, they say, the cheapest and simplest solution can be found right on our own rooftops. They argue that state-of-the-art photovoltaic solar panels, which have dropped dramatically in price, need to be a bigger part of the solution.

So you have people who are actually looking, thinking about buying a place and they'll say, "This place has solar rooftops, we want to buy there."

FIELD: Absolutely.

HINOJOSA: David Field is the president of Open Energy, a company that designs solar products...

FIELD: People want to be eco-friendly. Do the right thing and the other piece is if they're saving $50, $60 a month on their electric bill, because of a portion of electric bills is offset with these solar systems. Then it also affects their pocketbook.

HINOJOSA: Field gave us a tour of this condo development under construction.

FIELD: And actually the solar inverter in this complex is located in the garage.

HINOJOSA: A lot of environmentalists - including Al Gore - want to see the country develop what's called a digital "smart grid"—where homeowners would be able to sell power right back to the utility company. that power could come from an electric car, a backyard wind turbine or a rooftop solar panel.

After climbing on to the rooftop, we could clearly see how these are not your grandfather's solar panels. these panels blend right into the roof tiles.

HINOJOSA: So you—actually from here you can see a lot of the solar panels.

FIELD: Oh, you can. On all these rooftops. So that little system actually powers that whole house. Or at least—about 60 percent of the house.

HINOJOSA: You're kidding.

By using a mix of rebates and other incentives, California aims to get more solar panels installed on top of commercial spaces and government buildings. But could it also work outside of sunny California?

What about states that frankly don't have the sun 365 days a year?

FIELD: You'd be surprised. The—the biggest—market for solar—solar power in the world right now is Germany. Not a lotta sun. We sell a lotta products in Chicago. We have an operation—we had an operation until recently in Canada. So, it—it's—you'd be surprised how much energy you can get. It doesn't have to be like this 365 days of the year.

HINOJOSA: But while locally-generated energy projects definitely need to be more widely adopted. They're not likely to eliminate the need for transmission lines. Even David Field, whose company is selling these roof top tiles, agrees.

Is putting these solar panels on these roofs a way to avoid putting transmission lines that bring energy from—from farther away?

FIELD: To a limited extent, yes, but not exclusively, no. You still need large base-load power operations, like large desert-mounted solar concentration facilities that are selling power to the grid, in addition to systems like this. You can lessen the need for certain transmission distribution lines, but not all of it.

HINOJOSA: As we sort through these different strategies to expand clean energy, Cathy Zoi urges everyone to keep in mind that the threat of global warming requires an all- hands-on-deck approach.

ZOI: Based on what the climate scientists tell us, this is wartime, from a climate perspective. This is every bit as serious as if we're being in war.

HINOJOSA: Zoi says we need all forms of renewable energy. On our city rooftops and in our remote deserts.

ZOI: I think that we need a combination of solutions to all of these things. And it would be foolhardy for us to say to every household, "You need to become net zero. You need to generate all the electricity that you're gonna use on—at your house." What we have to do is bring people together, because as I say, we have no choice. There is an imperative that we've gotta make a rapid, clear transformation away from carbon-based fuels, that's because they cause too much pollution. And everybody's gotta come to the party. And figure out a way to get this done, and get this done in a responsible way.

HINOJOSA: With a new president days away from taking office, Zoi is hoping that some of this can get done quickly. President-elect Obama's proposed economic recovery package calls for huge investments in clean energy technology as well as that "smart grid" we mentioned earlier. Obama has also called for a national goal of getting twenty-five percent of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2025. Zoi says the nation's transition to clean energy could pull us out of the global economic meltdown.

ZOI: It's a storm that's perfect. It's not pleasant at the moment, but, the ingredients are there to really galvanize something that's permanent, that will be very good for our children.

HINOJOSA: Meanwhile, out in the backcountry, folks like Dennis Berglund hope the Sunrise Powerlink can still be blocked in court. For now, work is set to begin on the line next year.

BRANCACCIO: The debate about how to ramp up renewable energy is playing out across the country. What financial incentives are available in your state to promote clean energy and energy efficiency? Check out an interactive map on our website - you might find that going green could save you money.

And that's it for NOW. From New York Harbor, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.


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