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Seeking green, seeing red

IT’S NOT EASY being green. Just ask the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which thought it was blazing a trail toward renewable energy and away from the polluting coal plants that are now producing an unhealthy 40% of L.A.'s electricity. It scoped out the deserts and the mountains and lined up clean geothermal power from near the Salton Sea, plus a little solar power to boot. All it has to do now is bring it home. And there’s the rub.

No matter how cleanly it’s produced, electricity still has to travel from its generating source to Los Angeles along power lines. According to a story in Monday’s Times, the new lines for the DWP’s Green Path project would cut through sensitive wildlife and wilderness preserves and would be ugly, as power lines generally are. The 85 miles of lines and transmission towers could also level ridge tops and create a need for roads for construction and maintenance, and those roads could threaten sensitive ecosystems.

So it’s green power, but environmentalists hate it. Sometimes you just can’t win. The DWP is better off just forgetting the whole thing, right?

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Wrong. Protecting the environment requires very difficult trade-offs. Environmentalists, as well as the engineers at the DWP, have to weigh one form of environmental degradation, such as coal-burning power plants, against another, such as cutting roads through pristine wilderness. It’s imperative for the city to move forward in its quest to supply 20% of its energy from renewable resources by 2010 and to simultaneously move away from coal. Now the DWP must put in more hard thought and determine whether it can improve on its proposed route for the new high-voltage transmission lines.

The DWP doesn’t have the best track record of listening to the public on questions as basic as rate increases, so environmentalists understandably became concerned with a proposal based solely on internal department studies. But the public review process is just beginning. For a higher cost, the same route might be feasible by airlifting tower parts and workers, obviating the need for roads. Or the route could be shifted away from pristine areas -- but closer to homes.

There will be no perfect choice for the L.A. ratepayers or for the environment. But a frank discussion of the options, and the stakes, should produce the best choice.


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