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A San Diego lawmaker plans to try again to force utilities like San Diego’s electricity provider to purchase power from a new geothermal plant he wants to see built in the Imperial Valley.

Environmentalists and unions are on board. San Diego Gas & Electric, not so much. It’s warning the plan could lead to higher rates for San Diego ratepayers, who are already paying among the highest prices in the nation.

For the second time, state Sen. Ben Hueso plans to introduce legislation that would require California’s investor-owned utility companies to obtain 500 megawatts of power from new California-based geothermal projects. Last year, Senate Bill 1139 passed the state Senate with the bare minimum 21 votes, but stalled in the Assembly. Now, as head of the Senate Energy Committee, Hueso’s in a stronger position to champion his geothermal mandate, which was criticized for excluding municipal utilities, such as the Imperial Irrigation District.

Geothermal power plants tap the power of the Earth’s core. Wells dug into reservoirs bring naturally heated water to the surface, where it’s converted into electricity. The power source is common in Iceland, where an abundant supply of volcanoes, geysers and hot springs help geothermal energy produce a quarter of the country’s total electricity.

Here in California, geothermal energy production has remained flat as other renewable energy sources have skyrocketed. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, geothermal energy plants produced 12.5 million megawatts of power in 2012, the most recent year of available data. That’s down roughly a half-million megawatts from 2002. Over the same period, solar and wind energy production have increased more than 150 percent and now match geothermal in their combined energy production.

SDG&E, the state’s fourth largest electricity retailer, says that the high production costs, coupled with transmission problems, make geothermal a poor renewable energy choice for the region. The company says the bids it gets from geothermal projects come at 40 percent higher rates than other renewable energy sources.

“Since geothermal is twice as expensive as other renewable energy sources, that means SDG&E’s customers would be paying $450 million more than they would otherwise have to,” said Hanan Eisenman, a spokesman for SDG&E.

Not everyone is as pessimistic about geothermal power. Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, believes that SDG&E’s numbers are either outdated or atypical.

“As prices for solar generation have come down over recent years, so have prices for geothermal projects,” Gawell told Voice of San Diego. “We have seen geothermal generators cut costs by as much as 20 to 30 percent over the past few years.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown announced his goal for the state to obtain half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. California’s utilities are on track to meet the state’s existing mandate of 33 percent by 2020, thanks to new wind and solar projects. Currently, roughly 60 percent of the state’s energy comes from natural gas.

Those renewable energy mandates come at a cost to ratepayers. San Diego ratepayers, who were hit with a 21 to 24 percent rate hike last year, pay substantially more than the national average. A spokeswoman for SDG&E recently told Voice of San Diego’s Lisa Halverstadt that approximately two-thirds of rate increases are “because it’s costing more to buy energy in the first place, especially from renewable sources crucial to meeting the state’s 33 percent mandate.”

If the goal is to increase the share of renewable energy in California portfolio, why single out geothermal?

Like geothermal, the power lies under the surface. Although the bill never mentions it by name, SB 1139 was intended to spur a union-backed geothermal project in the Salton Sea, a man-made lake in Riverside and Imperial counties. Created by accident during the early 20th century water wars, the Salton Sea has become an ecological disaster due to rising salt levels.

Despite all its problems, the Salton Sea is one of the state’s most promising sources of geothermal energy due to a hotbed of geological activity. A one-mile deep geothermal reservoir brings a stew of salty, mineral rich water to the surface, where it burns off as steam. The Geothermal Energy Association estimates that the area could generate between 1,700 to 2,900 megawatt hours of capacity, making it “the best opportunity for growth in California.”

Additional geothermal plants could either speed up the environmental destruction by consuming more freshwater or improve the Salton Sea by lowering salinity levels.

“The restoration of the Salton Sea is one of California’s most daunting challenges,” Hueso told Voice of San Diego. “Developing geothermal power is an essential strategy to solve this monumental problem.”

As with most energy production, the problem with the Salton Sea is transmission, getting the power from where it’s generated to where it’s needed. In 2012, California utilities lost an estimated 14.28 million megawatts of power in transmission — enough to power all residential customers in San Diego County for two years. Geothermal energy advocates readily admit that transmission loss is a problem, especially with the Salton Sea project.

In its 2014 report on the state of geothermal in California, the Geothermal Energy Association identified “inadequate transmission infrastructure or a mismatch between available transmission and the location of geothermal resources” as one of four major challenges to the industry. However, it argues that geothermal is reliable, “provided 24 hours a day 365 days a year,” making it a better source than fickle winds or inconsistent solar.

“When you put it all together and add in all costs of reliably meeting the power needs of San Diego’s consumers, the value of geothermal goes up and the value of intermittent power is lower,” said Gawell, the geothermal industry’s spokesman. “Exactly how much is something that’s still under study by the PUC.”

One known cost is building the transmission infrastructure needed to transmit power from the Salton Sea to population centers. Transmission lines usually cost $2-$4 million per mile, but can cost significantly more. As the Desert Sun reported last year, “San Diego Gas & Electric’s Sunrise Powerlink transmission line, which carries electricity from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County, cost more than $16 million per mile.” The company says that the 1,000 megawatts of new capacity created with Sunrise has been filled with new solar and wind projects. Since the geothermal power isn’t near Sunrise, SDG&E would need substantial new transmission infrastructure.

The Salton Sea geothermal project may lack smart dollars and cents, but it makes political sense – uniting two Democratic constituencies often at odds. Environmental groups, including Environment California, Sierra Club California and Defenders of Wildlife, viewed SB 1139 as the best chance for saving fish and wildlife at the Salton Sea. The bill’s sponsor, the Riverside-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569, saw it as a windfall for union jobs.

“Geothermal energy is a win-win for local workers, our environment and is a big piece of the puzzle to helping California combat climate change,” said Micah Mitrosky, an environmental organizer with the IBEW Local 569. “We look forward to working with Sen. Hueso in 2015 to continue advocating for geothermal energy as a critical part of the governor’s vision to achieve 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, create high-quality jobs in our region and harness this unique clean energy resource to combat climate change.”

Since 2013, various electrical unions have contributed $24,700 to Hueso’s state Senate campaigns. Over the same period, Sempra Energy, the parent company of SDG&E, has donated $5,500 to Hueso’s committees. Hueso declined to answer questions about whether the contributions posed a conflict of interest.

Hueso’s office says that it is unsure when the bill will be reintroduced.

John Hrabe

John Hrabe is a Voice of San Diego contributor. He writes on California politics at CalNewsroom.com

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