The end of the road for San Diego Gas & Electric’s 900MW renewable energy project?

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In 2005 San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) signed a joint initiative with the Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems. Their mutual goal was to install 900MW of Stirling solar power in the Southern California desert. The plant would have 34,000 dishes, each capable of generating 25kW of power. It seemed like the perfect union of industry, desert and renewable energy. Vital to this plan was the construction of a power transmission line; an endeavour that SDG&E had agreed to partner with Sterling on to construct the $1 billion power line to bring more solar power to California. It didn’t take long for the critics to react; voicing their apprehension at the trouble it could cost the environment. Now three years after the initial planning began, a California administrative law judge, Jean Vieth, with the California Public Utilities Commission has denied the plans to build the high power transmission line from the California desert; a wrench in the plans since without it the project may no longer come to fruition.

Vieth’s decision may seem to be the strongest voice of dissent in regards to the project, but the judge is one in a long line. This past September, agricultural growers and ranchers in the Southern California area argued with state commissioners that their properties should be avoided as a possible route for the project. Essentially, they were refusing the prospect of losing their land in order for the transmission lines to go in. SDG&E countered that the most secure and economic way to link the desert’s wind, solar and geothermal energy to the Californian cities was to string the high-voltage lines over the growers and ranchers land in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Much of the environmental debate has centered over the potential harm that the power line could have on the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Judge Vieth even argued that the 150-foot-high towers could possibly hurt the species of the Park and called the impact “frightening”. Interestingly, there is potential for the transmission lines to be built in a southern route, something that SDG&E executives denied as a possibility this summer, but have now acknowledged as a possibility.
“Whichever route they select, we’re going to build,” said Michael Niggli, Chief Operating Officer for Sempra Energy Utilities, SDG&E’s parent company. Adding that although SDG&E preferred the northern route, the company was more than willing to use a more universally agreeable one.

Although taxpayers might be the ones having to pick up the $1.5 billion estimated tab for the project, SDG&E argues that the solar and wind projects it wants to build would help California meet the state mandate for renewable energy. Judge Vieth, in her report on her ruling, opposed this saying, “The potentially high economic costs to ratepayers and the potential implications for our [greenhouse gas] policy objectives do not justify the severe environmental damage that any of the transmission proposals would cause.”

The PUC is scheduled to meet in December to vote on whether to uphold Vieth’s decision. The turmoil that the proposed project has caused leaves some unanswered questions in wake of Tuesday’s election. With President-elect Barack Obama being a strong proponent of renewable energy sources, the opposition that the project has met in California calls into question the actual influence that his administration will have over the industry. Although the Federal government may pass initiatives and proposals to increase the U.S. renewable energy resources, if opposition to solar, wind and geothermal projects like Stirling’s and SDG&E’s continues, Obama’s renewable energy policies may never come to realization.

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