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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Transmitting clean power

California has a state goal of increasing the share of renewable energy used in the state. Of course, as with elsewhere in the country, the supply of such energy isn’t always where the demand is.

In particular, any large-scale solar energy plants will be built in Imperial, Riverside and San Bernadino counties, where it’s sunny and dry and land is cheap. (You won’t ever find solar plants on Palm Canyon Drive). For example, the big Kramer Junction power plant is in the Mohave Desert in San Bernadino County.

In the southwest corner of the continental US, San Diego is a geographically isolated metropolitan market without the hydro of the Sierra Nevadas or the windmill farms of the Tehachapis or the Altamont Pass. Instead, for years San Diego Gas & Electric has been pushing to build a new 123 mile power transmission line called the Sunrise Powerlink, to connect to a planned 900 MW power plant in Imperial Valley. In response to opposition by environmental groups, the environmental impact report runs 11,000 pages.

Now, Fortune reports that the power line has been rejected by Jean Vieth, an (Obama supporting) administrative law judge for the state Public Utilities Commission. The PUC uses law judges to develop the legal record, although the final decision is made by PUC commissioners. Oral arguments before the commissioners were held yesterday in San Francisco, towards a possible Dec. 4 decision.

The core arguments seem to be energy vs. the environment: the irony is that this energy would enable a shift by SDG&E from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Critics have claimed that San Diego doesn’t need the line to import the power, an argument that has been repeatedly rebutted by the state’s own power transmission bureaucracy, the Independent System Operator.

Perhaps this is the wrong project and there really are viable alternatives; I have no direct knowledge. However, rejecting efforts to increase the production and supply of clean energy will eventually either result in brownouts (as in the Gray Davis era) or the state failing to meet its goal of 33% renewable energy supply that’s 11.1 years off.

A belief in small is beautiful is not going going to eliminate the fundamental economic laws related to scale economies. Right now, solar thermal is the best option for California to gain the capacity necessary to replace fossil fuels.

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