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Already part of local renewable stock, wind energy poised for growth in San Diego

San Diego proper isn’t known for its wind farms, but it’s bordered by deserts to the east and south that produce wind, and that San Diego Gas & Electric considers a significant piece in its renewable energy portfolio.

Much of the talk these days revolves around solar power generation. But even as solar technologies improve and become cheaper, a clear majority of SDG&E’s renewable energy comes from wind. About 60 percent of it does, actually, according to SDG&E.

Power from wind is nothing new, but the utility expects it to remain an important asset in its quest to achieve renewable energy standards mandated by the state. State utilities missed the previous target of 20 percent renewable energy by 2010. Updated targets, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year, mandate SDG&E and the state’s other two major utilities to make renewable energy 33 percent of its sales by 2020. To reach those goals, they are expected to have renewable energy as 20 percent of sales by the end of 2013 and 25 percent by the end of 2016.

Last week, Anaheim, Calif. hosted Windpower 2011, a four-day conference focused on, as its name states, wind power. SDG&E’s vice president of electric & fuel procurement, Matt Burkhart, was among the hundreds of speakers and guests. Contacted by phone, he contends that the wind market is about to experience a big boom in business. That’s because long-awaited and delayed infrastructure projects like Southern California Edison’s Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project and SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink are becoming a reality.

“There just wasn’t enough room,” Burkhart said, for many of the big wind projects to take off beyond the planning stages with existing infrastructure.

But more and more, big-time 500-kilovolt systems capable of carrying that kind of power long distances are being erected. The Tehachapi and Sunrise projects, Burkart said, will make possible the hoped-for expansion .

“With the advent of those two big transmission projects, that opens up the whole Tehachapi-Mojave area for large expansion and in our case, over in Imperial County.”

The Sunrise Powerlink project will build a nearly $1.9 billion, 117-mile transmission line from the Imperial County desert to the San Diego area. It broke ground last December with all necessary approvals despite some lingering public opposition. It will be capable of bringing around 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy from the Imperial Valley to San Diego. A lot of that, Burkhart said, will come from wind.

But the lack of suitable transmission lines is just one arm of what Burkhart described as a “triple storm” during the last few years that has kept projects from coming online when expected. The other two storm fronts have come in the form of the statewide financial crisis and opposition to construction of certain renewable energy projects because of their locations, similar to that which held up the construction of the powerlink.

“We underestimated the difficulty (in getting) site control, to get title to these sites out in the desert,” Burkhart said. “There has been a remarkable and disappointing degree of opposition to setting aside some decent portion of public land for the social good of renewable projects.”

Not all projects that had been planned have made it through the various lawsuits, but several have. Among the largest proposed wind projects looking to benefit from the completion of the Sunrise Powerlink are the Energ'a Sierra Juárez plan and a proposed facility near Ocotillo.

Though it’s not initially planned for connection to the Sunrise Powerlink but rather to the existing Southwest Powerlink, Energ'a Sierra Juárez may need the new transmission line to make future phases possible. Sempra Generation is developing the project and plans for a 2012 completion of the first phase, which could generate up to 125 megawatts from wind turbines planned in Ejido Jacumé, near the Mexican town of La Rumorosa and about 70 miles east of San Diego. Additional proposals could increase the project’s generation to as much as 1,000 megawatts.

Despite the growing number of solar energy contracts being signed between SDG&E and developers in recent months, Burkhart said the majority of their renewable power will continue to come from wind well into the middle of the decade.

Just three months ago, SDG&E and San Francisco-based Pattern Energy entered into a 20-year contract for 315 megawatts of power from the proposed Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility. And two projects SDG&E contracted for years ago are set to break ground this year -- one in the San Gorgonio pass near Palm Springs, the Alta Mesa Project, and another in the Rosamond area, a 140-megawatt project of San Diego-based developer enXco.

The utilities' renewable portfolio beyond that time frame of the next few years will depend largely on how successful solar project developers are in overcoming financial and legal hurdles, Burkhart said.

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