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If the Judge's ruling blocking the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink through the Southern Californian desert, due to possible environmental damage, is upheld, it could doom the second phase of a massive 850 MW solar project. The project is among the first Stirling engine-driven solar farms, as pictured here.  (Source: Sterling Energy Systems)
The effort to tap solar energy in California's desert is grinding to a halt

California has long led the nation's solar efforts.  However, it is facing increasing legal pressure as the state's environmentalists clash over whether installing solar power is worth possible environmental damage.

The conflict was brought into sharp focus when activist judge Jean Vieth, an administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission, struck down plans to build a high power transmission line from the remote Californian desert, effectively dooming the massive solar initiatives set to be built in the desert.

The desert project was a joint initiative by San Diego Gas & Electric and Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems signed in 2005.  It aimed to install 900 MW of Stirling solar power in uninhabited Southern Californian desert wasteland.  Stirling power is a method of concentrating sunlight with mirrors onto water fueling a Stirling engine, and is thought to possibly yield higher efficiencies than photovoltaic cells.  The plant would feature 34,000 dishes, each generating 25 kW.

Central to the plan was the construction of a suitable power transmission line.  SDG&E had partnered with Sterling Energy Systems to create the Sunrise Powerlink a $1.3B USD power line to bring the solar power to Californian cities.

The project was struck down by Judge Vieth, who argues that its 150-foot-high transmission towers, which would cut through Anza-Borrego State Park, could be environmentally damaging.  The park features many protective species and Judge Vieth calls the power lines impact "frightening".

The project has generated an 11,000-page environmental impact report, which is so long that few have taken the time to read it all.  Judge Vieth's decision alone was 265 pages.  In it she wrote, "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 fight is far from over, though.  The public utilities commission meets in December to vote on whether to accept the Judge's ruling.  A commissioner assigned to review the case created an alternative, which they are also considering.  The alternative would be to move the route of the transmission line slightly, increasing costs, but potentially having less environmental impact.

Opponents of the project have argued that San Diego, the target for most of the generated power, already has enough rooftop space for urban installation of an equivalent solar installation.  The Judge has stated that she prefers this alternative.

COO Bruce Osborn previously stated to The Green Wombat, an online publication, that even if the Sunrise Powerlink was killed, there was still enough capacity to carry the 300 MW from the first phase of the project.  However, this will likely place more stress on California's already badly aging power grid.  Stirling still has its 20-year contract to supply up to 850 megawatts of electricity to utility Southern California Edison, a deal entirely unrelated, to fall back upon.

The case, while far from finished, illustrates an upcoming battle to be waged among once-allies.  As our nation embraces alternative energy, part of President-elect Barack Obama's ambitious national initiative, there will likely be increasing clashes between environmentalists supporting alternative energy installation, and those opposing it for possible environmental damage.

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Get informed before judging
By realsolar on 11/6/2008 12:24:03 PM , Rating: 3
So it takes 1000s of pages of environmental review to assess a project, but readers of this blog can make up their minds in 5 seconds? There's room in the middle of that spectrum for a reasoned examination of the facts. Here are several:
*A power line is not a "renewable energy" project. There is no requirement that this power line carry any renewable energy at all. (And Stirling Energy Systems is in no way associated with it, as the post implies.)
*In the early 1980s, the same company, SDG&E, promised that the Southwest Powerlink would carry renewable energy as a way of selling it to the public. Today, that power line carries less than 5% renewables.
*There is no commercially viable dish-Stirling system. That photo is Photoshopped, because these things don't exist in that number. Currently there about 5 hand-built models running at Sandia National Labs, and they have tremendous problems with reliability, which as DailyTechies should know is a killer for any power plant. To think that they'll be able to ramp up to making thousands of these units in a couple of years is a fantasy, like the photo.
*If SDG&E were serious about putting solar power on the Sunrise Powerlink it would have contracted with a company proposing to build a conventional concentrating solar thermal plant in Imperial Valley.
*SDG&E's parent company Sempra, has invested billions in developing LNG import infrastructure that includes a pipeline passing just south of the Sunrise Powerlink's starting point, across the border near Mexicali. There are also two gas-fired power plants at this location, and there could be more. The real and obvious reason SDG&E wants to build the Sunrise Powerlink is to import that gas-generated power into Southern California, and the renewable energy claim is just greenwashing. Defeating the Sunrise Powerlink is not a defeat for renewable energy. This is why the Sierra Club, which supports some Big Solar in the desert and has a stakeholder on California's Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative, is opposed to this particular power line.
*The blog post mentions the alternative routing proposed by a CPUC commissioner, but doesn't mention that this alternative requires SDG&E to provide assurances that this line really will carry renewable energy. Given the uncertainty over those Stirling dish systems, it's somewhat doubtful that SDG&E will be able to meet these assurances. Requiring this power line to really carry renewable energy should count as a victory for renewable energy advocates, not a defeat.
*Rooftop Solar: readers of this blog don't seem to be aware of the advances in Cadmium-Telluride thin film solar panels. This cheaper technology has revolutionized the solar industry so that this type of photovoltaic is now cheaper than concentrating solar power. That's why Southern California Edison announced a project for 1000MW of rooftop solar on commercial buildings to be installed over the next 5 yeears. In addition to being cheaper, there's no need for a $2 billion power line to deliver the energy. The marketplace will inevitably switch to this technology, unless government subsidies skew the marketplace toward Big Solar. The fact that this technology can be placed on existing built surfaces makes it environmentally superior to Big Solar.

RE: Get informed before judging
By Suomynona on 11/6/2008 1:26:02 PM , Rating: 2
Do you have numbers on PV vs. CSP? Everything I've read has said that CSP is cheaper. Besides material costs, you can also centralize costs for maintenance, land leasing, etc. Obviously you know more about this particular project than I do, but in general it seems to make more sense for a utility to have a centralized solar plant.

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