New Power Technologies— But Same Old Transmission Problems

Alternative energy has become a growth industry, with announcements for new wind, solar and geothermal projects an almost daily event. But getting the clean electricity these facilities produce to market poses the same challenge faced by traditional power plants: gaining approval for new transmission lines.

09/01/2007


Alternative energy has become a growth industry, with announcements for new wind, solar and geothermal projects an almost daily event. But getting the clean electricity these facilities produce to market poses the same challenge faced by traditional power plants: gaining approval for new transmission lines. Western U.S. states offer some of the greatest opportunities for renewable-energy development, and are currently facing big transmission-line battles as a result.

One of the largest renewables-related transmission controversies is San Diego Gas & Electric's proposed $1.3 billion Sunrise Powerlink project, which would cut across 150 miles of mountains, valleys and deserts, including the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. SDG&E contends the line would enable access to wind and solar resources—including a proposed 900 MW solar-collector project—allowing the utility to meet its state-mandated target of deriving 20% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2010.

However, critics contend the territory that the new line would cross is too environmentally sensitive to support the installation, and that renewable-portfolio targets could be met through more local efforts. They also state the utility's renewable-energy claims are really a front, and that the project's larger aim is to provide new transmission capacity for traditionally produced electricity from the San Diego area to Northern California. The California Public Utility Commission is expected to decide the issue in January 2008.

A similar controversy is forcing a U.S. Department of Energy environmental review of a $120 million, 203-mile line that would connect Montana to Canada's Alberta grid. Wind-farm developers in the area say the 230-kV line is crucial to their projects' success—already three companies have signed transportation contracts with line developers. However farmers whose land the line would cross are objecting to the design of poles to be used in the project.

The DOE previously completed a draft environmental study along with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. In June, the DOE announced it will be completing an environmental impact statement as a result of the farmers' complaints.

New Mexico has passed legislation intended to ensure transmission-line battles don't slow renewable-energy development efforts. The measure, which took effect July 1, allows a new quasi-government authority to plan and finance transmission-line construction if at least 30% of the electricity to be carried on the line is from renewable sources. Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate, was a strong supporter of the law.

Attendees of the Western Governors' Assn.'s annual meeting in June were urged to consider similar financing efforts in their own states by a leading solar-power developer. John O'Donnell, executive vice president of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Ausra, a start-up solar-collector developer, noted that capital-cost financing for transmission capacity was the major hurdle standing in the way of Western states becoming major energy exporters.





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