Everything in the green energy world seems to come with a little bit of controversy. Just a few weeks ago, the Bureau of Land Management gave the green light (PDF) to the SunRise Powerlink, a utility "superhighway" that would deliver 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy from the Imperial Valley into metropolitan San Diego, a rapidly growing city that is expected to hit its energy capacity in a few years.

After a three-year-long debate, the California Public Utility Commission voted 4-1 to approve the $1.9 billion rate-payer funded project in December after Sempra made major environmental concessions, such as rerouting the main transmission line around the beautiful Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (the green line in the map above).

Proponents of the project talk about how the new line will spur investments in renewable energy. The principle reason the Imperial region, rich with solar, wind and geothermal resources, has not yet been developed, is a lack of reliable transmission lines to the coast. And in building the new grid, old and inefficient substations will be replaced saving customers over $100 million per year in costs, according to Sempra. Of course, there is also the promise of "green jobs."

So what's the problem? The main one, according to environmental champion and CPUC council member Dian Greuneich who voted 'no' on the agreement, is that the utility will not promise to dedicate the line to renewable energy sources. Greuneich wanted a legally binding agreement that would prevent the utility from selling transmission capacity to natural gas and coal power plants in Arizona or Mexico. 

Sempra refused, saying that they couldn't guarantee there would be sufficient renewable supply to fill the line. However, they did promise to give priority to renewable projects and meet that state's requirement for a 33 percent renewable mix by 2020. Greuneich and other environmental groups point out that a promise is all well and good, but doesn't necessarily mean anything when money starts flying.

All of this brings to mind a question I keep hearing amidst the buzz about smart grids and energy superhighways: Why can't we just generate our energy right in the city? Instead of spending $2 billion on giant steel towers and miles of transmission lines, the utility could provide a rate-payer funded solar loan program. They would get their investment paid back in a few years, create thousands of urban jobs, give customers the ability to make money (which will in turn stimulate energy conservation), AND create the most reliable, decentralized grid money can buy.

Can someone help me here?

Per Governor Schwarzenegger's Million Roofs program, about 330,000 home rooftops (about 1/3 of San Diego's homes) could produce 1,000 megawatts of energy, the same amount of energy provided by the Sunrise Powerlink, and at about half the cost.

The only thing that would explain what to me seems so obviously a misappropriation of funds, is that Dian is right. There are big utility companies who have a vested interest in selling their wares. Yes, some of them are solar and wind producers. But there are a whole lot of coal and gas resources just primed for power-hungry San Diego. And just think. If everyone created their own power, who would buy theirs? 

Controversial 'Sunrise Powerlink' promises clean energy from the desert
Southern California is slated to get a clean energy 'super highway,' but environmentalists (and this blogger) are skeptical.