Green power may not always get a green light

Sarah Gardner May 29, 2007
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Green power may not always get a green light

Sarah Gardner May 29, 2007
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KAI RYSSDAL: Here’s a statement that on the face of it, you’d take to be true: Green power is good for the environment.

The response goes something like this: Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees . . . but.

Utilities in Southern California are trying to meet the energy needs of a voracious population. The city of Los Angeles, for one, is trying to tap into geothermal and solar sources.

The environmental problem comes when those utilities try to get that power to the city’s four million residents. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner has more.


SARAH GARDNER: You might call this a story of “conflicting sustainabilities.” Los Angeles wants to become the “greenest and cleanest city in America,” in the words of its mayor: 20 percent renewable power by 2010.

L.A. can do that partly by tapping into geothermal fields hundreds of miles away in the Southern California desert. Hot water trapped in underground reservoirs is piped to the surface, then spun in turbines to make electricity.

David Nahai is president of L.A.’s Water and Power board.

DAVID NAHAI: It’s a matter of replacing a filthy fuel, which is coal, and moving towards a clean resource that is dependable, which geothermal is.

But that laudable goal is colliding with another noble endeavor: preserving pristine lands east of an overdeveloped Los Angeles. In order to connect L.A. to that renewable power, the city is planning 85 miles of new power lines and steel transmission towers.

But some of the routes under consideration cut through a desert wildlife preserve and skirt the edges of a treasured national park and forest.

Environmentalist Chris Elkins says California’s high desert may appear desolate . . .

CHRIS ELKINS: You have to actually get out and walk and immerse yourself in it. And you find out very quickly that it is full of life.

APRIL SALL: This is actually an ecologically sensitive area that’s a desert mountain-transition zone.

April Sall drives through Pipes Canyon Reserve. She manages the desert area for the nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy. The proposed energy corridor may cut through Conservancy land.

Sall and other local environmentalists say high-voltage transmission towers here would be like graffiti on art. They worry about the habitat for over 200 kinds of birds, and the effect on a hamlet here with a Tinseltown history.

SALL: The community of Pioneertown was historically a western film set. That’s how it was founded in 1946. Gene Autry and Annie Oakley and all of the Hollywood folks that came out here to film this area I think would be devastated by this proposal.

This kind of debate over environmental trade-offs is going on all over the U.S. Supporters of wind power, for example, weigh the risks to birds and scenic views. Advocates of carbon-free nuclear power must balance that climate benefit with the risks of nuclear waste.

Sean Gallagher, director of the energy division at the California Public Utilities Commission, says the remote location of many green-energy sources is forcing utilities and environmentalists to make uncomfortable decisions.

SEAN GALLAGHER: For example in California, there are terrific wind resources in the Techachapi Mountains not far from Bakersfield. And there are terrific solar resources in the Mojave desert. But you have to be able to bring the energy into the area where the people live. And that will require either building new transmission or enhancing existing transmission.

Local groups are urging L.A. to route the so-called “green path” along existing urban power corridors as much as possible — an option that is likely more expensive.

L.A.’s David Nahai stresses the city will consider many routes before it makes a final decision.

NAHAI: We have to be protective of our ratepayers as well.

L.A. begins public hearings on its plans this summer. Local conservationists hope they’ll hold one of them near Pioneertown, where urban decision-makers can take in the high desert views and the solitude their building plans would interrupt.

In Pioneertown, Calif., I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.RELATED WEBSITES

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