Alternative Energy Still Facing Headwinds

President Obama signed into law a $787 billion economic stimulus plan called the 'American Recovery and Reinvestment Act' Tuesday at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, a setting intended to underscore the new law's role in creating clean-energy jobs. Video by AP
By Peter Slevin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

BOULEVARD, Calif. -- The late afternoon light is shining golden on the high chaparral as Donna Tisdale stands near a faded 1800s ranch house, scans the unblemished surrounding hills and sees trouble on the horizon.

"The ridge right there will have turbines on it," she says, squinting west into the setting sun. Turning north and east, where a pristine ridgeline meets the sky, she points out the route of a $1.9 billion electricity transmission line whose 150-foot towers will march 123 miles from the Imperial Valley to energy-thirsty San Diego.

"No matter which way you look, you won't be able to get away from it," laments Tisdale, a rancher and political activist in McCain Valley who is trying to block the power line. "I hate when outsiders come in and take what they can and then leave."

The three-year fight over the Sunrise Powerlink, which is designed to carry solar, wind and geothermal energy, typifies the serious challenges facing President Obama and many of the nation's governors as they tout the power of renewable energy to put people to work and rescue the planet from the effects of climate change.

The nation's richest resources of renewable fuel -- primarily wind and solar -- lie in distant deserts, vast plains, and remote valleys and hilltops like this one, far from the populous cities where energy is most needed. Thousands of miles of new power lines will be required to bring renewable energy to cities and suburbs, a vast undertaking that will cost untold billions of dollars in public and private money and will require compromise by dueling interest groups and people such as Tisdale.

Obama, who made the country's energy future a central part of his campaign pitch, is now staking political capital on his vision. With the nation enduring its deepest economic crisis in decades, he told Energy Department employees earlier this month that energy provisions, including funding in the stimulus bill, would "begin to end the tyranny of oil in our time."

"After decades of dragging our feet," Obama said, the "plan will finally spark the creation of a clean energy industry that will create hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next few years, manufacturing wind turbines and solar cells, for example."

Obama said U.S. renewable fuel capacity will double in "the next few years." Noting that the electrical grid has changed little since the era of black-and-white TV, he promised a "better, smarter" network that will "ship wind and solar power from one end of this country to the other."

Yet the $2 billion in the stimulus package devoted to transmission lines is a tiny part of what's needed. "I see it as seed money," said Jon Wellinghoff, acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "We need $100 billion to $200 billion worth of investment, and I believe we'll see that money coming from the private sector," he said, though current credit conditions make that difficult.

There are other hurdles besides financing, including multiple steps of permitting, as well as logistics and opposition to the transmission lines that would crisscross slabs of unspoiled landscape.

"From the time we first proposed it in 2005, we won't finish it until 2012," said Michael R. Niggli, San Diego Gas & Electric's chief operating officer, who helped steer the Sunrise Powerlink through layers of approval last year. Opponents have since sued, citing environmental shortcomings.

The same difficulties have come up elsewhere. In October 2007, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) hailed a state board's approval of a 180-mile transmission line as "incredibly good news for our state." She continued, "These new transmission lines will help our state harness wind potential and provide short- and long-term investment in our communities."

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