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May 2-9, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Form vs. Function, Part 2

Nūz promised a second segment on the unfortunate struggle between environmental functionalists and aesthetes that's now blossomed into a battle over the nation's most ambitious clean energy program--and here we go. Our story begins on Sept. 12, 2002, when former Gov. Gray Davis signed S.B. 1078, a bill mandating that 20 percent of California's electricity would come from renewable energy-increasing by at least 1 percent each year--by 2017.

This was, and is, the most stringent such mandate in the nation, requiring a doubling of the current 10 percent renewable energy production level. And it's strict, too: if producers fail to meet the goal in any given year, they're required to make up for it over the next three.

Soon after, the California Energy Commission called for a further speedup--20 percent renewable by 2010. Gov. Schwarzenegger has endorsed this accelerated schedule and has set a goal of achieving a 33 percent renewable energy share by 2020 for the state as a whole.

On Nov. 1 of 2005, the California Public Utilities Commission tightened up the goal yet again, demanding a quick 33 percent renewable energy production goal. "It is economically and technologically feasible to achieve ... 33 percent ... in California by 2020," said its report. And those conclusions were pretty much adopted statewide. And so it came to pass that on Nov. 17, 2005, a mere 16 days later, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, under intense pressure to straighten up L.A.'s power consumption and thus clean up some of the dirtiest air in the nation, announced his intention to make that city "the greenest city and cleanest city in America."

The goal? Twenty percent of L.A.'s power to would be renewable by the year 2010. Just five years hence. How? First, the stick: to raise the level of pressure, he and officials of the L.A. area's South Coast Air Quality Management District announced, some 16 years in advance, that they're not going to buy any more of coal-fired power from Utah-energy that provides some 40 percent of L.A.'s power--when the contract expires in 2023.

Then followed the carrot: a "Green Path" (actually, two green paths, but the details are endless and not very enlightening) bringing 800 megawatts of geothermal and solar power from the desert areas (Salton Sea region) and 400 megawatts of nuclear-based electricity from Arizona, and wind energy from the Imperial Valley and the Tehachapi Mountains. All in all, those would bring in 10 percent of the city's electrical needs. Which, added to the current 10 percent level of renewables, would do the trick. At least this part of the trick.

Soon, the city of L.A.'s Department of Water and Power got involved, committing $240 million to construct and upgrade transmission lines necessary to get that power from those places into L.A. "This is major step forward in our effort to shift away from the outdated fossil fuels of the past," said Hizonor Villaraigosa. And he brought in the main man of Citizens Energy of Boston, former Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, to help run the whole thing.

The L.A. DWP spent a bit more than a year looking at exactly where to run the transmission lines, finishing up toward the end of 2006, and ending up choosing a route, says the L.A. Times, which "would be the least intrusive to existing homes, tribal lands, national parks and wilderness areas." A "preferred alternative," they called it.

And what this preferred alternative called for was a set of transmission lines that extend from Arizona to California, crossing Pioneertown in Yucca Valley, Pipes Canyon Wilderness Preserve, Big Morongo Wildlife Preserve near Palm Springs, a smidgen of the San Bernardino National Forest and the Cajon Pass.

That outcome was, of course, entirely predictable, given that virtually all land in the southern desert regions of the United States are now part of preserves of some kind or another. The federal Bureau of Land Management alone oversees some 15 percent of California's land, and regardless of its habit of protecting or exploiting that land (a source of constant debate), it has designated hundreds of sites as Protected, National, Monument, Corridor, Wilderness, Preserve or some combination of them. So transmission lines running through that corner of the nation are virtually guaranteed to run through at least a few.

Add to that dozens of groups who have valiantly scraped up bucks and bought patches of land to save desert turtles from drunken four-wheelers, keep tourists from clambering on and destroying soft rock formations and shooing malls away from flowered valleys, and the result is a patched quilt of protected plots of land that constitute an infrastructural obstacle course of Guinness Book class. Imagine trying to implement a bullet train.

What the L.A. Department of Water and Power was apparently not prepared for, however, was the nature of the accusations to follow.

David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy, one such preservationist group, immediately accused city officials--in an echo of our own local Coast Hotel battle--of "secretly planning" the route and hiding it from the public. Nūz finds no such secrecy--the alternatives were clearly and openly discussed for months in numerous records, including those of the Bureau of Land Management. Nevertheless, accusations of secrecy being de rigueur, he made them, along with the statement, "We were just shocked."

Even more threatening was the reaction of Justin Augustine of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Not only is such energy consumption not 'green,' it is unacceptable under any name," wrote Augustine to Mayor Villaraigosa within days of the Green Path's proposed route's release. Given that his group labels itself "Nature's Legal Eagles," and specializes in suing everyone in its endangered species' path, that's a nasty portent of things to come.

What's oddest about this whole incident is that neither Myers nor Augustine will specify what it is that's so shocking or unacceptable. The Wildlands Conservancy website contains no mention of the project, or its opposition to it. The Center for Biological Diversity offers Free Endangered Wildlife Ringtones & Wallpapers, but is equally mum on the subject. Nūz hopes that this failure to elucidate does not indicate what such failures usually do, which is the presence of such a rigid state of certainty that no other consideration dare intrude--always a setup for a struggle of a primarily ideological nature.

After all, while beauty, and especially the beauty of unspoiled wilderness, is doubtless important, the fact is that unless the nation begins to generate power from renewable resources--and soon--there aren't going to be any wilderness features left to protect. Those that don't melt and wither away will erode from pollution.

We can only hope that this gridlock is broken, and that the battle between environmental functionalists and aesthetes does not re-create the original delay in starting to get the most important work of our generation done.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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