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April 18, 2014

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More help urged for ‘green’ energy

Environmentalists: Proposed routes for power lines favor coal

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Sam Morris

At six meetings across the West over the next week, the public can comment on proposed power-transmission corridors that would include parts of Nevada, some like this vista in White Pine County.

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Almost lost in the public debate over coal-fired power versus renewable energy is how to get both kinds of power from the plants where it’s produced to the cities where it’s used.

At issue: how much planning is being given to placing electrical power lines near generating plants that use renewable resources, versus conventional coal-fired power plants.

The federal Energy Department, with the help of utilities, has drawn up a latticework of proposed transmission corridors — designated preferred pathways for fuel pipelines and electric power lines — across 11 Western states. Designating these corridors would fast-track proposals by utilities to build power lines along the routes, which in Nevada traverse government land.

In theory the power lines built in those designated corridors would bring power from coal, gas and renewable power plants alike to homes and businesses in Western cities.

But environmentalists say the Energy Department’s draft plan for the corridors proposed in Nevada unfairly favors existing and proposed coal-fired power plants, leaving renewable-rich areas off the grid and without convenient, preapproved delivery paths — possibly stifling their development.

Rather than looking to the future of America’s energy supply — which even utilities admit will increasingly come from clean, renewable sources — the plan essentially plays connect-the-dots between coal-fired projects, says Tom Darin, an attorney with the environmental group Western Resource Advocates.

“To be smart they need to promote a forward-thinking policy focused on renewable energy,” Darin said.

Environmentalists have taken their concerns to the federal government, which is conducting meetings across the West to review the environmental effect of transmission and fuel lines. The agencies will hold six more meetings, including one in Elko, over the next week.

Although the proposed corridors run near about half of the existing or proposed geothermal power plants in the state, according to Darin, there is a gaping hole in the center of Nevada in the Energy Department’s plan.

“Central Nevada has a significant geothermal resource and the (Bureau of Land Management) had a lot of recent leases there,” said Darin, referring to a recent public lease auction in which geothermal companies snatched up rights to resources in Northern and central Nevada. “We know through significant dollars being invested that that’s where some of the best resources are.”

Heather Feeney, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management’s Washington office, said Darin’s criticism is one the bureau has heard across the 11 states. She said there was “extensive discussion of alternative energy sources on federal lands,” and how to get that energy from remote areas to the corridors.

But because the corridors may cross only federal lands — and because the agencies try to avoid wilderness areas, parks, monuments, military bases and other sensitive areas — the routes they can take are limited.

“Trying to steer around all of those kinds of lands and at the same time locate only on federal lands ... generally accounts for the proposed routes in the draft right now,” Feeney said.

In the vast, open middle of the state are several geothermal, solar and wind hot spots, according to an advisory committee reporting to Gov. Jim Gibbons on transmission issues. The committee’s report, released Thursday, maps out areas rich in renewable energy sources and points out where new transmission lines would have to be constructed to get that energy to Las Vegas. It suggests transmission lines be built in many of the same areas proposed by the Energy Department, although it also points to areas in central Nevada that would not be served by large north-south and east-west power lines.

Hatice Gecol, the governor’s energy adviser, said the committee thinks the Energy Department’s corridor designation process will help the state solve its problem with shortage of electric transmission lines, which developers of renewable energy say is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the industry.

Darin and other environmentalists, however, say the Energy Department should identify corridors closer to renewable energy-rich areas in central Nevada and take a cue from the state’s analysis of its renewable resources.

“This plan is meant for two decades, but it’s not looking at where the energy future is going,” said Nick Dobric, who does educational outreach and organizing work for the Nevada Wilderness Project. “They should really be setting up an infrastructure for renewable energy and not for coal.”

Dobric and most other environmentalists agree that energy corridors generally aren’t a bad idea because they concentrate the harmful effects of building pipelines and power lines into compact areas. But Dobric thinks the proposed corridors run too close to sensitive wildlands such as the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

“These aren’t your typical power lines. These energy corridors ... are three-quarters of a mile wide,” he said, adding that bighorn sheep and desert tortoise habitats could be affected, especially during construction, if power lines are built through the refuge. He said he’s hopeful the comments about renewable energy and environmental sensitivity that the Energy Department and the Bureau of Land Management have collected will be considered before the agencies designate the corridors. “They were there to listen and I think we definitely made our point. People in Nevada care about these areas. If they’re going to propose something like this they definitely can’t roll over the citizens of Nevada.”

(Editor's Note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version referred to the state Energy Department, rather than the federal Energy Depatment.)

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