There is an interesting controversy brewing in southern California, the land of eternal smog. The city’s Department of Water and Power, which now produces about 40% of its electricity by burning coal, has identified some renewable sources of emission free power in the desert to the east of the city. There is some sun out there and a bit of accessible geothermal power. I am not sure how the quantities compare to what the city uses, but I think it is likely that they are quite small.
Of course, that is not the important point for some pushers of the concept of green power. They believe that it is important and should be supported by renewable energy mandates, so they are pushing hard to encourage the DWP to figure out a way to move the power from the desert to the city.
The DWP has just released a proposed route for the necessary transmission lines, and, not surprisingly, there are people that are a bit upset.
The path that the DWP chose goes through some pristine areas where there are few residents, but there are plenty of vocal visitors that do not want the beauty spoiled. I fall into that second category; one of the reasons that I am not a fan of most renewable energy sources is that they are inherently large spoilers of views, land, wind and water resources. Not only does gathering the energy affect the local environment, but the energy has to be moved to populated areas for it to be of much use. Transmission lines become a permanent fixture, and they require access roads with clear cut paths underneath to prevent trees from interfering with power transmission.
The real reason that I bring this controversy to your attention, however, is the illogical backflipping done by some supporters of alternative energy sources. Here is the LA Times editorial board solution to the comment that environmental damage done by new back country roads is a problem.
Wrong. Protecting the environment requires very difficult trade-offs. Environmentalists, as well as the engineers at the DWP, have to weigh one form of environmental degradation, such as coal-burning power plants, against another, such as cutting roads through pristine wilderness. It’s imperative for the city to move forward in its quest to supply 20% of its energy from renewable resources by 2010 and to simultaneously move away from coal. Now the DWP must put in more hard thought and determine whether it can improve on its proposed route for the new high-voltage transmission lines.
The DWP doesn’t have the best track record of listening to the public on questions as basic as rate increases, so environmentalists understandably became concerned with a proposal based solely on internal department studies. But the public review process is just beginning. For a higher cost, the same route might be feasible by airlifting tower parts and workers, obviating the need for roads. Or the route could be shifted away from pristine areas — but closer to homes.
Now, a logical, number crunching engineer might think about the fact that renewable energy sources are already costly and they already consume a lot of high energy input materials like concrete, glass and metal. She might then think that an airlift requirement for tower construction might just postpone even further into the future the environmental payoff for the project since hovering helicopters are prodigious consumers of carbon emitting fossil fuel. When will editors realize that there is a point at which these renewable sources are not only costly, but they cause more emissions than they can ever hope to prevent?