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.