Protesting Solar – UPDATED

…also wind and geothermal energy.

Well, to be precise, it’s not so much the generation of these energy types that is being protested…just the construction of the transmission lines required to get the electricity to the point where it is needed.

Southwestern desert areas are a logical place to put solar power plants, and large-scale solar developments–as well as wind and geothermal–are planned for an area about 150 miles from San Diego. The local utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, wants to build a transmission line (the “Sunrise Powerlink”) to connect these power sources with the city. The project is encountering fierce opposition, because the lines would go through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, known for wildflowers, cacti, and spectacular mountain views.

I haven’t been to this state park, and it may well be an area of unique and surpassing beauty. Maybe there is a better approach to satisfying San Diego’s energy needs.

How about nuclear?…new nuclear plants could be located closer to San Diego, thereby avoiding most of the transmission line run. Any such project would, of course, also encounter fierce opposition; the opponents would doubtless include many of those now protesting the Sunrise Powerlink.

Coal or natural gas? These do not count against the “renewable energy” targets which the utility is required to meet…also, natural gas leaves consumers exposed to future large price increases if demand for this commodity outstrips supply.

Rooftop solar? Even if there is enough available roof area in San Diego (which I doubt), solar cells do not have the inherent energy-storage capabilities of the large-scale solar-thermal plants which can be located in the desert, nor do they offer the 24X7 capabilities of geothermal. (Local distributed generation would also surely require upgrading the city’s distribution system, resulting in inconveniences to quite a few people.)

Local wind? Every single wind turbine would likely be the target of protests and litigation. And again, wind turbines have no inherent storage capabilities.

The reality is, there are no perfect ways to generate energy. In the age of wood-fueled homes and industry, forests were devastated. Thousands of waterwheel-powered mills interfered with the navigation of streams. The destruction of forests for fuel was stopped by the coming of coal, but coal brought its own negatives. In the 1930s, leftist intellectuals sang the praises of large-scale hydropower–but dams and reservoirs, of course, can displace thousands of people, as well as altering natural river flows and making life difficult for fish.

In the linked WSJ article, the President of the California Parks Foundation is quoted as follows:

The idea that we’re going to sacrifice critical pieces of our environment to protect other pieces of our environment seems a little ironic. That’s an irony I cannot accept.

I’m missing the irony. It is often necessary to trade off good things against other good things, or bad things against other bad things. Indeed, the making of such tradeoffs is a fundamental aspect of adult life.

California governor Schwarzenegger is frustrated by the opposition to project such as the Sunrise Powerlink:

But, I mean, if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.

I fear that the thriving protest industry will make it impossible to develop practical power sources of any type on a scale necessary to meet demand. If this happens, then the impact on the economy–and specifically on the “working families” about which the Democrats love to talk–will be devastating, and recovery will be a long, slow, and painful process.

UPDATE: See this Forbes article on the coming electricity shortage. Via Instapundit, who says: I guarantee, however, that those who have been blocking new power plants won’t take responsibility for the problems they’ve created. Instead, they’ll blame evil corporations.

19 thoughts on “Protesting Solar – UPDATED”

  1. I think it important to understand that environmentalism is a social and political movement that has little to due with the protecting the health and welfare of either people or nature. The key drive of environmentalist is for the non-productive to exert power over the productive using the environment as a pretext. It doesn’t matter what the productive do, the non-productive will always find a pretext to attack them. Since it is impossible to create any material good with out affecting the environment in some way, all production is hostage to hysterics in every circumstance.

    It’s a big mistake to think that we can satiate their lust for power by creating new technologies.

  2. Vast Power Line Project Irks Monastery and More by Sean D. Hamill in the NYTimes on April 9, 2008:

    High View, W.Va. — The founders of the Bhavana Society Forest Monastery came here looking for a slice of densely wooded land where Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people could meditate in sylvan surroundings. … But 24 years after the Buddhists bought the land, they say that quietude is now threatened by plans for a $1.1 billion power line that would entail clear-cutting a 200-foot-wide swath of forest nearby.

    * * *

    The monastery, however, has worries of its own, among them the clear-cutting that would expose a nearby junkyard, the use of herbicides to control plant growth and the 125-foot towers that would hold the lines. Residents all along the route share similar concerns.

    “If this is built, it could affect our livelihood; fewer people may want to come here if we can’t offer the peacefulness we have now,” said Bhante Rahula. “The battle has already made it hard to get it out of my mind and meditate properly.”

    The line would run alongside the monastery’s 48-acre property.

    * * *

    State and Congressional representatives in the three states where the Northeast line would run have organized to oppose the federal corridor designation, …

    “We haven’t seen long-haul power lines built in this country in a long time,” said Jone-Lin Wang, managing director of the global power group for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, … “And there are major problems with the transmission system nationally that mean we’re going to see other competing lines proposed, all with the same goal” of bringing more power where it is needed.

    “We understand people don’t like power lines,” Ms. Wang said, “but we have to do something.”

    An environmentalist is a person who would rather be the problem, than solve the problem.

    We will not be out of the woods until the last lawyer is strangled with the entrails of the last environmentalist.

  3. If it’s easy to measure the economic damage caused by these environmentalists groups, why can’t these groups be sued for damages? Am I missing some law here? Are they legally immune from litigation?

  4. I agree with the thrust of what is being said here. However, I also sympathize with the monks quoted by Mr. Schwatrz, and I note that power lines ARE ugly and (more significantly) highly inefficient over long distances.

    I would propose generating fuel (probably hydrogen) at the site of wind farms or solar arrays, and transporting it to electrical-generating sites closer to the actual place of need. Such fuel would either be piped in (as natural gas is) or trucked in . (Trucking would no doubt create its own protests, but since gasoline is likewise brought into urban areas, there is precedent for it that bodes well for implementation.)

    One other possibility is turning electricity generated by wind farms, etc., into a substance that resembles natural gas. This gas would then be added to existing gas pipelines. Its use would be encouraged by laws and or/subsidies designed to give “artificial/natural gas” preference by utilities currently supplying it. The advantage of this is that the customers (including gas-powered industrial electric generators) and delivery system already exists.

    I confess here that is do not know much about the process of turning electricity into natural gas (if in fact something feasible does exist). I also acknowledge the inefficiency of turning electricity into hydrogen and then back into electricity, although transmission lines also have their inefficiencies and other drawbacks. (Remember that wind and power demand storage of their electric generation anyway, as they do not always create power at the times of peak demand. The creation of hydrogen is one way of storing power for later use.)

  5. Butcha gotta understand, you know who many people die every year due to exposure to solar energy? It’s in the thousands. It’s not safe man. /sarcasm off

  6. Mr Snitch…good creative thinking. A few points:

    1)I don’t think the electrical transmission losses over 150-200 miles are all that great…maybe 5% at normal transmission voltages.

    2)Turning water into hydrogen does involve significant inefficiencies. Also, water in the Southwestern desert is likely to be in short supply.

    3)I don’t think there’s any known way to make natural gas (methane) from electricity.

    4)Any new pipeline construction to carry hydrogen or natural gas would also probably be the target of protests, although it would obviously (once the construction was over) be less visually-intrusive than electrical transmission lines.

  7. Mister Snitch,

    There has been some work done on using solar powered furnaces to make liquid fuels. However, the efficiency is not that great. If your talking about starting with CO2 taken from the air instead of, say, altering coal to a liquid form, then you would be looking at efficiencies at less than 10%.

    All other forms of alternate transport for electricity fair little better. Making hydrogen by electricity gives efficiencies of 18-20%. Of course you would need an entirely new infrastructure to transport and burn the hydrogen.

    There really isn’t any alternative to long distance transmission by wire for the foreseeable future.

    It is interesting that people think that power lines are ugly. In the early days of electricity people thought them beautiful. Of course, they saw in those lines, light, heat, comfort, protection and even education. We’re spoiled to day. We take all the benefits of electricity for granted. If we had to go without for a few months people would fall all over themselves to build lines across their property.

  8. Re: “3)I don’t think there’s any known way to make natural gas (methane) from electricity.”

    It is indeed possible via hydrogen as an intermediary product:

    There is already an infrastructure for natural gas, the main drawbacks of natural gas/methane for transportation is: 1. Expensive gas tank and 2. It takes about a 13 cubic foot gas tank filled at 3000PSI to get the same mileage as with 30 gallons of gasoline, which takes up about 4 cubic foot volume.

  9. The last paragraph of Shannon’s comment above is, indeed, the key to a great deal of the relentless obstructionism and suspicion of all things technical that we see repeatedly in so many of these artificial controversies.

    As a culture, we are so accustomed to having machines that work, drugs that prevent or ameliorate illness, food cheaply and easily obtainable, schools available to all, 24 hour a day news and entertainment, adequate clothing and shelter as a norm so basic that it is considered a scandel if anyone lacks them, and the list goes on.

    It is startling to realize that all this has occurred in only a few centuries, and especially the 20th century, and further to realize how utterly different such an attitude toward life’s fundamentals is from any other era in human history, and from the attitudes of most of the rest of the human race currently living through their own versions of the industrial and technological revolutions.

    We have come to the opinion that everything we want and need is our rightful due, to be provided conveniently and unobtrusively, with moderate costs, and little or no negative side effects. This attitude is well demonstrated in the surreal discussions about energy, oil and gas prices, and potential solutions.

    There is an almost mystical demand that someone, somewhere, somehow create a new way to power everything we want by “harnessing” sunshine or wind or waves or some such, but not in any way that is ugly or dangerous or intrusive.

    We sit in our well heated or cooled homes and offices and demand that solutions appear full grown and effective, and without harming any butterflies or fish.

    I sometimes wonder if this unreality is a form of mass psychosis, but in the final analysis, I think it is really just simple intellectual laziness. The problems are so difficult, and the potential avenues towards solutions are so complex and filled with less than optimal choices, that it is just easier to blank all that out, and live in that wonderful fantasy world where everything always works by the end of the movie.

  10. The last sentence should read “…where everything always works out for the best by the end of the movie.”

    Senior moment.

  11. Shannon…”it is interesting that people think that power lines are ugly. In the early days of electricity people thought them beautiful. Of course, they saw in those lines, light, heat, comfort, protection and even education.”

    I recently saw a letter to the editor from an electrical engineer who had been developing small-scale hydro in Africa. He wrote of the *joy* expressed by the local people when the little plant went into operation.

    Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect people who never been without electricity to have the same emotional reaction. Still, one might hope for enough imagination to think about what life was like without electricity…and what it might be again.

    From a book on rural electrification by Trumanesque liberal Clyde Ellis (yeah, I read weird books):

    “According to another story, one farm wife said, ‘I just turned on the light and kept looking at paw. It was the first time I’d really seen him after dark.’

    I saw tears roll down my own mother’s cheeks when the lights came on. ‘Oh, if we could have had this while you children were growing up,’ she said. Later I drove her and Dad up the road, ath their request, ‘to see the house at night with the lights on.'”

    This history seems completely forgotten by today’s “liberals.”

  12. The article that this most reminds me of is the opposition from Ted Kennedy to the windmills off the coast of Massachusetts. They won’t even support renewables within their line of vision.

    Transmission lines cause just as much a furor as new generation. Unfortunately, it is even harder to build transmission than generation, because usually there isn’t a company with a financial incentive to profit from it enough to make it worth while.

    Good post.

    I won’t even comment on the fantasy thinking of some of the commentators. While we are scared to put solar in the desert, regular Chinese business just hook up their own unregulated, filthy coal plants and just shoot the stuff out into the atmosphere.

    I am not aware of anyone feeling the pain from blocking needed legislation. It is a good idea, though.

  13. Making people feel the pain of their NIMBYism and Luddism is an information problem. People have to be informed how they are being harmed and by who. Solving this problem is the final strategic nail in socialism’s coffin. The one thing they’ve got left going for them is socialism (and allied isms like environmentalism) can have concentrated public benefits that are trumpeted loudly while their greater costs are diffuse and hard to assign blame on.

  14. I have trouble being very optimistic about “naming names” in the short run. How many malaria victims does it take to make people question bans on ddt? Women’s longevity may be a good goal, but do we hold anyone responsible for predictions less optimistic about men’s? Sure, after we are all dead, someone will look through the evidence from our time and decide we were idiots and listened to false prophets.

    The best news I’ve heard is that fewer Americans are warming to the idea that it is the corporation’s fault. The more we doubt those populist appeals, the happier we will all be. It’s more fun to live in a reality-based world.

  15. You are seriously in error about the facts. The following demonstrate why it is very important to not take the claims of renewable energy companies or utilities at face value.

    Fact: SDG&E and its parent Sempra Energy have justified the Sunrise Powerlink as a “green” power line primarily via a power purchase agreement with a company called Stirling Energy Systems (SES), which is working to develop Stirling-dish solar technology. The contract provides for a 300MW plant and options for two more of this size. Each plant would be made up of 12,000 25kW Stirling-dish units.

    Fact: SES currently has only 6 hand-built prototypes of its dish technology undergoing testing at Sandia National Lab, yet it claimed it could scale up to 12,000 operational units in less than 4 years.

    Fact: The US DOE in an April 15, 2008, research plan on page 107 said that it assumed a mean time between failure (MTBF) for the SES technology of only 200 hours. This means that each of the 12,000 dishes would be expected to break down about 18 times per year (assuming 10 hours of operation a day). Do the math — that’s a lot of breakdowns. In contrast reliable existing energy generators (wind, photovoltaic, natural gas, steam turbines) have a MTBF of less than once per year and they don’t depend on so many individual units. Despite over two decades of research, the SES technology is still no where near “utility grade” in terms of reliability. This technology needs a lot of research money because it is simply not ready for utility-scale deployment. The US DOE doesn’t think its engineers will even complete a design for a next generation prototype until June of 2011. Assuming these engineers (who are actually operating SES’s current equipment) are right, this means that construction and testing of these prototypes are very unlikely to be completed before the 2012-14 timeframe, which means that construction on a utility-scale 1 MW pilot plant wouldn’t likely begin until the 2015 timeframe — and that assumes that the scientists and engineers working on this technology can overcome the fundamental materials challenges that have kept this technology from being commercialized. NTR, a company that recently promised to invest $100 million in this technology, has not committed nearly enough money to build any sizeable project even assuming they can get the technology to stop breaking down, so hopefully they will invest their money in the basic research required to get this technology working. NTR’s investment in basic research may be particularly important because if the US economy tanks then the federal government may not have the money to pay for more research. We need to be realistic about this technology, because doing so is more likely to ensure that money on it is spent wisely.

    Fact: The SES technology is not able to store thermal energy because it collects the energy via numerous dishes each of which is focused onto separate 4 cylinder Stirling motors/gen sets that are not connected to each other. When the sun goes down, the motors turn off. It’s completely different technology from trough and tower. If SDG&E had proposed trough or tower they would have been taken more seriously, but they did not do so. Instead, SDG&E has justified this transmission line primarily on a still experimental technology. Why’s that? Do you think they are just ignorant?

    Fact: A 2007 report from Navigant Consulting, Inc. (NYSE: NCI), a firm with more than 1,900 global consultants, estimated that the SES technology would cost about $6/Watt installed capacity, whereas SoCal Edison is estimating that its recently announced roof top PV solar project in the LA region will cost about $4/Watt and would also not require spending money on a big power line.

    Fact: SDG&E’s parent company, Sempra Energy, just completed construction of a major LNG facility in Baja Mexico.

    Fact: Sempra owns a large natural gas fired power station in Mexico just south of the border and a second owned by another company is nearby.

    Fact: Sempra (or one of its LNG customers or affiliates) could build a third and fourth natural gas fired power station in Baja Mexico in less than 4 years, about the time it would take to build the proposed power line, in part because the transmission export capacity from Mexico to the US in this location is about twice what is currently being exported to the US.

    Fact: Current federal law prohibits reserving the use of power lines for any particular type of technology, so SDG&E can’t promise to use its proposed power line only or even mostly for renewable energy — once the line is built Sempra can use it to transmit any type of power it wants. Senator Reid has proposed legislation that attempts to address this problem.

    Fact: During the last firestorm the only reason San Diego didn’t experience blackouts was because of local generation. San Diego’s existing high voltage transmission links (two dual 230kV lines with ~2,000 MW of import capacity from LA and a 500kV ~1,900 MW line from the Imperial Valley) were shut down due to the fire. (By the way, San Diego’s peak demand is around 5,000 MW such that a very large percentage of its power can be imported right now.) If the Powerlink had been in place, it too would have been shut down because SDG&E’s preferred route went right through the fire zone. Moreover, 3 of last fall’s fires were caused by power line equipment, so building more transmission lines and the distribution lines they spawn in this fire-prone region is risky. In San Diego, local power generation is more secure than transmission lines.

    Fact: Current geothermal development in the Imperial Valley is around 400 MW. The local utility built a dual circuit 230 kV line with ~1,000 MW of export capacity to serve future geothermal development needs, so a large proportion of this line’s capacity is not currently being used by geothermal energy. Yet geothermal development is going slowly in the Imperial Valley despite a lack of opposition due in part to the fact that most of the untapped geothermal resource is under the Salton Sea and the resource brine is very corrosive, with the result that the plants are expensive to build and operate. There are plans to partially drain the Salton Sea but this would require billions in federal funding, is politically uncertain and at best would not happen until sometime after 2020.

    Fact: According to CA Energy Commission data between 1980 and 2006 SDG&E ratepayers on average paid 23% more for power than the ratepayers in the rest of California, despite the less regulated “business friendly” nature of conservative San Diego. The pro-business people in San Diego are so supportive of SDG&E that they are willing to get ripped off rather than criticize a corporation.

    Question: Why would SDG&E. the California utility with the lowest use of renewable energy in California, propose to use an experimental solar technology to justify building a ~$1.5 billion fire-spawning power line from just north of the Mexican border to within spitting distance of the LA electricity market rather than invest this money in rooftop PV or other proven renewable and other locally-based energy generation technologies?

    Answer: Because SDG&E/Sempra would make a guaranteed return on investment on the power line, create a new market for Sempra’s LNG import plant in Mexico, and get cheap transmission rates to ship power from Mexico to LA. Yippie for Sempra! But, what about ratepayers? Just because SDG&E/Sempra says this line is good for ratepayers and the environment doesn’t mean this is true. Analysis before the Public Utilities Commission show that there are many cheaper, cleaner solutions to San Diego’s energy needs including local generation of many sort, upgrading existing power lines and using energy more carefully. Why is it cheaper to build natural gas and solar generation facilities in the desert and a new transmission line rather than just build natural gas and solar facilities in San Diego County and skip the $1.5 billion cost of the proposed Powerlink? None of the enviros opposed the last 5 natural gas-fired generators built or permitted in San Diego, including the 500 MW Otay Plant and 4 peakers.

    These facts are documented in filings made to the California Public Utilities Commission, but reading them would take work(!).

    The best way to think about this debate is that there are many solutions to our energy needs and we need to determine and implement the cleanest and least expensive ones that also maximize benefits to local economies. It’s not about “renewable energy transmission lines versus parks,” which is a simplistic, counterproductive perspective that does not do justice to the complex issues at play here. Main Stream Media stereotypes sell papers but don’t solve problems.

    If you support continued dependence on expensive LNG imported from Indonesia/Russia/Mideast they by all means support the Sunrise Powerlink. But, perhaps you should look at the price charts for natural gas in the US and compare these to that for gas prices overseas that are higher. The existing solar trough plants in the Mojave are actually dual-fired with natural gas, meaning that they can operate 24/7, but they reduce their fuel consumption when the sun is shining, thereby saving money otherwise spent on natural gas.

    The people who oppose the Powerlink are saying just the opposite of “Not In My Backyard.” They want to generate the energy in their backyards rather than import it. They went to the remarkable effort of preparing a 158 page report called Smart Energy 2020 that lays out a detailed proposal for a mix of local renewable energy, other local energy and efficiency and conservation measures that can meet San Diego’s energy needs at lower cost. And yes, the numbers show that there is sufficient space on rooftops and parking lots for the power needed. We are talking about San Diego, one of the sunniest, most southern and low-rise cities in the country. Germany has installed something like 3,000 MW of rooftop PV and I haven’t heard that this required substantial distribution line upgrades or inconvenience. A recent study by Minnesota concluded that a minimum of 600 MW of renewable energy could be installed in rural MN without transmission line upgrades just by using distribution lines more efficiently. It indicates that much more could be installed. Likewise, little Denmark has most of its ~3,000 MW of wind hooked up to what would be consider distribution lines in the US. I think you are suggesting that problems might exist with little knowledge of on-the-ground experience elsewhere.

    Bottom line is that the Sunrise Powerlink is about who owns and financially benefits from energy generation technology. Sempra/SDG&E are the ultimate NIMBYs because they have been and still are actively trying to stop others (large independent power producers like NRG, Calpine, and LS Power, as well as small business, individuals) from owning and making profit on energy generation in Sempra/SDG&E’s “backyard.” Just that usual pesky tendency in corporations toward monopolistic practices.

    People aren’t “protesting solar”. They are protesting getting stuck with a $1.5 billion ratepayer funded pork barrel project that will hook them on imported LNG rather than being able to build local generation of all sorts (yes, including where necessary fossil fuel-power). They want a free market, not an inside deal cut to benefit a few.

  16. “(Local distributed generation would also surely require upgrading the city’s distribution system, resulting in inconveniences to quite a few people.)”

    Unlikely, deploying distributed generation would reduce the requirements on the electrical grid and therefore, on the large scale, could actually decrease the complexity and size of the distribution system (less maintenance, material, space, time, money) and result in higher net efficiency.

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