U.S. Backs Power Lines For Clean Energy

A lot of the big solar and wind power projects being built in the West are on private property – but the power lines that will bring their electricity to the grid just as often cross public lands. Such is the case with the Centinela Solar Energy Project in California and the Echanis Wind Energy Project in Oregon, each of which has now received Obama administration approval for its transmission lines, despite some opposition.

The 104-megawatt (MW) capacity project in Oregon has been especially controversial. It was among a trio of wind turbine arrays originally proposed by Columbia Wind Energy Partners for the north side of Steens Mountain (pictured below), an imposing fault-block mountain that rises a mile out of the high desert of southeastern Oregon. This fall, the company canceled two of the projects, but said it would go forward with Echanis – much to the chagrin of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, which believes the project poses a threat to a wide range of wildlife that call the area home, including golden eagles.

Steens Mountain, wind power plant, echanis

image via U.S. Department of Transportation

In an interview, Liz Nysson, the group’s energy policy coordinator, expressed dismay at the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) decision to approve the 44-mile, 230-kilovolt (kV) North Steens Transmission Line [PDF] that will carry power from Echanis to the grid. “We’re not opposed to wind power development, but we are strongly opposed to wind power development where it will be terribly damaging to the environment,” Nysson said. She added that the association had not determined if it would try to fight the project in court.

Centinela, meanwhile, is a 275-MW photovoltaic plant [PDF] planned for what the government calls “previously disturbed” private land near El Centro, Calif. The administration signed off on right-of-way for 19 acres for a 230-kV transmission line that will send the plant’s power to a San Diego Gas & Electric substation. According to local media reports, the project faced criticism because of feared impact on agriculture in the area, including loss of prime farmland and increased water use, but it was approved unanimously by the Imperial County Board of Supervisors.

The Obama administration said 219 jobs will be created at the Echanis project at the peak of construction, and once operating the plant will produce enough energy to power 30,000 homes. The Centinela project is expected to produce enough electricity to power at least 60,000 homes, with 360 jobs created at the peak of construction.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.