April 23, 2007
Green Energy Means Power Lines Across Parks

Daniel B. Wood of the Christian Science Monitor reports on an environmental fight in California about "green" energy that requires ruination of beautiful views.

Los Angeles - California and the city of Los Angeles have set an ambitious goal for 'greener' power: obtain 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2010.

But to do that difficult decisions need to be made. Wind, solar, and geothermal electric power produced in the rural reaches of the state must be somehow be transported to faraway cities meaning some transmission lines must cut through national forests, wildlife refuges, and other treasured land areas.

Solar panels require the expanse and cloudless climes of desert areas, wind requires the funneling effect of mountain passes, and geothermal power is derived from hot or steamed water underground.

Daniel Wood then raises the important question:

But how does the city get the energy to where it's needed without spoiling the pristine environments that it's trying to preserve?

Ooo, Ooo! I know! Do you? Obvious, isn't it? The pristine environments don't get preserved. Sorry.

If the city of Los Angeles wants power that doesn't require covering large areas of the desert with solar panels or wind towers and which doesn't require towers that cut across beautiful parklands then they ought to build some nuclear reactors near downtown. But nuclear power is taboo among most greenies. So here come the power lines across forests and land areas with lots of wind towers. It is all done in the name of environmental protection.

What does a growing population, expanding economy, and a legislature's demand for "green" power mean? Lots of power lines cutting across scenic vistas.

California is fast-tracking several big alternative-energy projects in the southernmost quarter of the state costing $4 billion. A proposal to build power lines, substations, and transmission towers through a national forest, two wildlife preserves, and a rural village used in TV and cinema westerns has provoked the ire of environmental groups even as authorities say no final decisions have been made.

Local renewable energy requires technological advances. Cheap photovoltaics with high conversion efficiency plus a cheap way to store the electricity for night use could allow use of building surfaces as electric generators rather than rural land areas. High efficiency photovoltaics would also avoid the need for power lines to bring wind energy from distant places. But the needed technologies are probably 10 or 20 years away.

Back in the 1970s California environmentalists preached a halt to population growth. They abandoned that position in order to seem non-racist (non-whites came to account for most population growth). Now they are fighting a losing battle. Their losses are accelerating. Enthusiasms for energy sources that require large land footprints (e.g. biomass energy) amplify the growing land footprints of growing populations.

Land is the natural resource in shortest supply. With enough energy we can create building materials from a large range of raw materials. But we can't create land area. Rising affluence increases the demand for land as people build bigger houses, vacation homes, and other structures along with more roads to reach them. Plus, greater demand for agricultural products for food, fiber, and energy add additional demands for land.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 April 23 10:51 PM  Energy Policy

rsilvetz said at April 23, 2007 11:46 PM:

Quote:Land is the natural resource in shortest supply. With enough energy we can create building materials from a large range of raw materials. But we can't create land area.

Just checking assumptions... Is it? Or is it locked up in all the Federal grips like in Nevada? Or the huge Biodiversity Parcels under the UN treaties, in the MidWest? It certainly is finite... then again isn't there a certain Persian Gulf state putting lots of new real estate offshore?

We could build down as well as up... apartment buildings can and should be viewed as land multipliers...

Technology also opens more and more land for growing things... California used to be mostly desert... it now produces a huge agricultural surplus thanks to irrigation and fertilizer...

Couple fusion with water precipitation tech and you can live anywhere on the planet.

Given a little effort we could start building the famous Towers from 3001: The Final Odyssey.

Just a few random thoughts...

Brett Bellmore said at April 24, 2007 7:33 AM:

Strictly speaking, while solar panels and windmills have to be above ground, powerlines don't. They're just more expensive if you bury them.

Nick said at April 24, 2007 8:16 AM:

"They're just more expensive if you bury them."

And, it's certainly possible to avoid wilderness, and go through populated areas....but that's also more expensive. The utilities are hoping to get public lands cheap. People are always trying to get freebies from the commons - it looks like a classic wilderness preservation battle.

Kurt9 said at April 24, 2007 8:49 AM:

The greenies opposed nuclear power because its not PeeCee, and they stopped promoting limits on population growth, again because it is not PeeCee. Then, when they try to build powerplants, even wind turbines, noone wants them anywhere near where they live or work. Now, when we really do need the power, especially in places like California, the only option is to build the "renewable" plants out in some remote area and pipe all the power in on transmission lines. Also, because the renewable stuff is such low density power, many more transmission lines are needed than would otherwise be the case. There is a reason why centralized, high density power generation is desirable.

The only silverlining to all of this (if you call it that) is that real estate in California, at least the coastal areas, may get so expensive as to choak off further population growth. Of course this means that only the rich and lucky will be able to live in the nice parts of California.

The joys and agnonies of being PeeCee.

The problem with the greenies is that they were mainly composed of boomers in the 70's (some had good ideas). Those boomers grew up, got married and had kids, and begin to live the conventional life and careers which are not conducive to political and environmental activism. The greenie movements later got hijacked by the PeeCee people (immigration) and the anti-industrialist leftist, who opposed any kind of technological progress and economic growth whatsoever. This is what killed the environmental movement as a credible force for positive change.

K said at April 24, 2007 10:40 AM:

I think this is not a concern for solar.

Look at a power grid map. Solar doesn't need to be far from lines. It does not need to move the power to cities, it just needs to reach an existing line (which may need more capacity at some points).

In the West there are hundreds of square miles of undeveloped desert right under existing transmission lines. In mountainous states the grid was built for hydroelectric and solar can be nearby w/o much impact. In coastal Southern California there are thousands of acres of empty land under the existing high-voltage lines which cross the entire area. It is fenced off and usually unused (although some land is leased for nurseries, etc.)

Wind is tougher, the towers have to be high and visible. For remote wind farms it might be time to try the long hyped microwave transmission of power.

Kurt9 said at April 24, 2007 10:49 AM:

Go to (http://www.limitstogrowth.org/) and scroll down to the article about the Bay Area.

This is the reason why we need an environmental movement that is not corrupted by money and leftwing ideology.

Vince said at April 24, 2007 3:12 PM:

I imagine you have to cut down as many trees to run transmission lines underground as you do to stick them up in the air. Of course, they'll eventually grow back, but so they will around aboveground lines as well.

jim moore said at April 24, 2007 4:33 PM:

Good point K, but don't give up on wind yet. First, you can put wind mills at on the ocean ( most large cities are not too far from the ocean). Or you can much higher and use blimp windmills or ultra high flying kites to generate electricity almost anywhere.

Randall Parker said at April 24, 2007 6:22 PM:

Jim Moore,

I think the flying windmills proposals are pretty interesting. But right now they are not ready and can't save forests and scenic vistas.

Actually, they'll be plenty visible as well.


Solar power isn't a big factor in high power line construction because solar costs too much. The various research pushes to make solar panels cheap and flexible will eventually make solar easy to use on structures. But I already see the greenies making it tough to put up solar panels in houses in some communities (e.g. Santa Barbara) if the panels will be visible from the street. Unless the solar material can look like normal roofs and siding it is going to raise esthetic objections.

Nukes really minimize the eyesore problem. They produce the most energy per amount of land used.

Robert Silvetz,

If federal lands get released into commercial production and housing uses that'll certainly decrease the amount of scenic vistas and wildlife areas. Maybe that's okay with you. Personally, I want large areas of nature.

David Mathews said at April 24, 2007 8:55 PM:


The easiest and actually only effective technique of solving the energy problem is not nuclear power plants nor power lines destroying pristine areas.

The people of California must learn to live without. The people of California must make sacrifices. The people of California must accept a substantially reduced standard of living.

What is true for California is likewise true of the United States of America.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depends on your point-of-view) the United States won't have a choice about this matter.

I am in favor of depriving Americans of both electricity & automobiles.

We have already destroyed too much of this Earth. If we choose to continue our Long War Against Nature, Homo sapiens certainly will go extinct -- and deservedly so.

Randall Parker said at April 24, 2007 9:03 PM:

David Mathews,

People won't do what you want them to do.

I'm not saying that because I disagree with you. I'm just telling you that people aren't going to go along with your wishes.

Nick said at April 24, 2007 9:07 PM:

"Solar power isn't a big factor in high power line construction because solar costs too much. The various research pushes to make solar panels cheap and flexible will eventually make solar easy to use on structures. "

It may happen pretty soon. Nanosolar is promising to slash PV module costs in just the next year or two. Of course, you'll have to get the construction industry to integrate them into new construction to make them really cheap...

"But I already see the greenies making it tough to put up solar panels in houses in some communities (e.g. Santa Barbara) if the panels will be visible from the street."

Beware of over-generalization. Zoning and architectural objections don't come from environmentalists, they come from ordinary neighbors and people who care about their living space, just as you do. There is great diversity among environmentalists, and lumping all of those with vaguely related concerns together is sloppy thinking. Pay attention to language: anytime you feel the temptation to use a disrespectful term like "greenies", you can be pretty sure that you've stopped thinking critically.

After all, you care about pristine wilderness - doesn't that make you a "greenie"?

K said at April 24, 2007 9:10 PM:

I agree that distributed or point-of-use solar is going to be the more common method - certainly in my lifetime. Solar plants run by utilities are great for peak loads but only for peak loads. I was only addressing this articles reservations about sending the power to cities.

My bet is on nuclear ala France. We have more extreme weather here. At night excess nuclear capacity could stored in a bulk material for use at homes. This seems practical here in Arizona where I would like to cheaply chill a ton or two of water to 40 degrees every summer night. In colder areas hot water could be a sink in winter. I'm not competent to calculate the efficiencies but I suspect it will work. Simple methods can get overlooked while everyone looks for magic bullets.

rsilvetz said at April 24, 2007 9:13 PM:

Hi Randall,

It's not a question of whether it is ok or not with me. Frankly I couldn't care less. Where my fellow man wants to live or not live is upto him.

Population pressures alone will strip the lands from .gov. The Feds live in this environmental fantasy that they can sequester the land. They can't keep people from migrating across borders, imagine trying to prevent them from living down the road or over the next hill.

Melinda said at April 25, 2007 7:48 AM:

Underground superconducting transmission and distribution powerlines have the potential to beautify both urban and rural landscapes. Of course digging up the ground will be disruptive while it's going on. In the long run, people will be happier with the source of their prosperity "out of sight and out of mind."

See the video near the bottom of this posting: http://alfin2100.blogspot.com/2006/09/superconducting-power-transmission.html

Zeyphod45 said at April 26, 2007 6:11 AM:

http://www.betterhumans.com/blogs/advancednano/archive/2007/04/25/z-pinch-nuclear-fusion-and-space-propulsion-about-20-years-away.aspx Good news for the human race bad news for the voluntary human extinction movement.

Randall Parker said at April 26, 2007 7:39 PM:

We are going to get cheap solar eventually. Check out the New Scientist article a story on how baking of plastic photovoltaics raises their efficiency.

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