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Hard part of green energy: plugging in

Wind turbines are powered by strong, prevailing winds near Palm Springs, Calif.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal:
On top of fixing the economy, getting out of Iraq and maybe overhauling this country's health care system, Barack Obama says he wants to invest billions of dollars in a clean energy infrastructure.
For some pointers he might look at California.
This state hopes to generate about a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
But it's learning some difficult lessons along the way.
Because turns out building the capacity to generate more renewable energy--whether that's a solar grid, new wind turbines or wind or geothermal--that's reasonably easy.
The hard part is tying all that new green power into the existing grid.
From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.


Sam Eaton:
Once you start talking about powering a third of California's $2 trillion economy with renewable energy, solar panels on rooftops no longer cut it. Bob Liden is with Stirling Energy Systems.

Bob Liden: In order to get the type of megawatts or gigawatts worth of power that are required to meet these standards you really need to go to large scale solar, and we're talking real industrial scale solar.

And to do that you need to travel hundreds of miles inland from the sprawling coastal cities to places like California's Imperial Valley. Liden says this sun baked stretch near the Mexican border is poised to become the Saudi Arabia of solar.

Liden:
This is one of the best solar resources in the world. They get less than two inches of rain a year here so there aren't many cloudy days.

Liden wants to build acres of giant mirrors that concentrate the sun's heat enough to power steam turbines. Unlike conventional solar panels, solar thermal technology, as it's called, is expected to be cost competitive with coal in just over a decade. And once completed this single plant could supply clean electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes in San Diego and Los Angeles. The only problem is getting it there. Jackie Pfannenstiel chairs the California Energy Commission.

Jackie Pfannenstiel:
The places where the renewables are most abundant are places where we haven't traditionally had power plants.

California has at least 80 large scale solar projects on the drawing board. To tap into that power it needs to start building transmission lines at an unprecedented pace and cost. But cost isn't what's holding up new projects.

Tape of Public Hearing:
The power lines will desecrate the open desert. It will desecrate the remote backcountry wilderness.

At a public hearing last week in Imperial County, community groups and environmentalists rallied against a new power line that would cross fragile public lands. Opposition to these projects is nothing new, especially in a state where nearly every view is dotted with high voltage towers. But California's time frame for renewable energy is new. And with transmission lines taking up to a decade to approve, Governor Schwarzenegger has taken policy makers to task.

Tape of Arnold Schwarzenegger:
In a few minutes I will be signing an executive order right over here to clear the red tape for renewable projects like solar, wind and geothermal. We will streamline the permitting process in the sighting of new plants and transmission lines.

At a recent news conference Schwarzenegger singled out a solar farm in Victorville being held up because it sits on habitat for endangered squirrels.

Tape of Schwarzenegger:
It's just one of those unfortunate things that environmental regulations were holding up environmental progress.

And with half of all states now pushing renewable energy standards of their own, all eyes are on California.
And whether it can successfully fast track one environmental goal without sacrificing another. Again, Jackie Pfannenstiel with the California Energy Commission.

Pfannenstiel:
We are, if you will, the beta test for the country on what can be done on renewables. And we're going to succeed here and others are going to export that success.

But success isn't going to be easy.
The Imperial Valley is also a mecca for offroaders who worry about losing access to public lands. Bob Liden's proposed solar farm would stretch across 10 square miles. But Liden says for every naysayer, there's a supporter. Imperial County, for example hopes a wave of green jobs will remedy its longstanding, double digit unemployment rate.

Liden:
It's a balancing act. Like everything else there are compromises and you just really have to try to figure out what makes sense.

Liden says if we're really serious about stopping global warming, it's not going to happen by making everyone happy.

In California's Imperial Valley, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.
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The intro to your story is totally baseless. ==="Sam Eaton: ... powering a third of California's $2 trillion economy with renewable energy, solar panels on rooftops no longer cut it...."===

California plans to produce 3-5% of their electricity in their million solar roofs campaign. There are 13.3 million homes in California according to 2007 census estimates. Some quick math shows that if they did a 13.3 million solar roof campaign, they could produce 40 to 66% of their electricity needs.

At 3,000 watts per house (the million house plan), and $6.95 per watt (the price a friend recently paid for his system), you are looking at $277 billion. That's a lot of money! But it would all be going to solar panel manufacturers and installers. That's not such a bad thing.

Can we afford the luxury of perserving these wild places? There are not many places like this left but if we don't get global warming and energy security under control it won't matter.

I don't buy the whole "centralized' solar energy approach. Why not rooftops and photovoltaics? Where is silicon valley on this? Time to "power down".
It is reprehensible to extirpate wildlife and destroy habitat for economic reasons...or for ORV "fun".

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