For the first time, SDG&E will be flying drones to check on their power lines.
The Federal Aviation Administration just approved test flights only for eastern San Diego County, making ours the only utility in the country to get the go-ahead to use unmanned aircraft.
“We have 26,000 miles of transmission lines,” said Hanan Eisenman, the SDG&E spokesperson. SDG&E is on a constant watch over those lines and the more than 450,000 trees near them.
“We actually have to send a person to the top,” Eisenman said. They use heavy trucks and ladders to send skilled employees up to inspect for debris or any wear and tear on the lines.
But now they will have some help from a tiny contraption with massive potential. Drones would take over and do the inspecting. They have a camera on them that’s about the size of a pencil’s width. That camera will send a live feed back to a mobile control room.
The drone weighs about less than one pound, and it’s about 16 inches in diameter, with four propellers that allow it to move straight up, forward and backwards. It can get to the tops of power lines in a matter of seconds. Not only is it quicker, it’s better for the environment and much cheaper.
Two drones and the camera gear cost $6,000 total.
Compare that to when SDG&E sends helicopters to inspect their lines, it costs them about $2,000 an hour to lease.
The utility can also use drones during high winds and to inspect fires, sending them over sites too dangerous for people. Eisenman said, “if there is a fire we can monitor it, check to make sure it’s not getting to close to our lines.”
SDG&E has only been approved to test them now in four small regions through the McCain Valley in East County, each about 2.5 miles by 1/2 mile.
“It’s very remote, very rugged. So there are no homes no businesses,” said Eisenman.
Once the test phase is over, SDG&E will likely request more drones to patrol more land and more transmission lines.
These drones could save you money in the long run, since the utility will save by not having to send out as many trucks or lease as many helicopters. But it’s too early in the test phase to know how much or if this will impact your bill.
JULIAN — An alternative energy company wants to build an 8-acre solar farm, with 4,660 solar mirrors, on land two miles west of downtown Julian, a proposal that has nearby residents up in arms.
If the project is approved by the county, the farm would be built on a 8.5-acre parcel just off Calico Ranch Road in an area called Wynola, a stone’s throw from Julian.
The 1.0 megawatt of energy the farm would generate — enough to power roughly 650 homes — would be sold to SDG&E and help the company inch closer to its state-mandated green energy requirements.
Patricia Landis — Charlie Neuman
But the project is far from being a done deal. The county this week told developers it has concerns about its size and the effect it might have on the character of the rural community.
And residents in the area — worried the farm will diminish property values and lead to similar developments nearby — have formed a group called the Julian Coalition Against Neighborhood Destruction to fight the proposal.
“You’ve got this piece of property here and you put up an 8-foot high fence topped with barbed wire all the way around it, and inside is nothing but solar panels,” said Patricia Landis, one of the coalition leaders. “Who’s going to buy these other properties to build their dream homes?”
Landis and her husband live just a few hundred yards from the proposed solar farm site, which is visible from State Route 78.
The owner of the 8.5-acre property recently sold it for $220,000 to a Minnesota-based renewable energy company called Ecos Energy LLC. Two other parcels of the same size, to the immediate east and west of the land, are owned by the same family trust. Residents fear they could also be put up for sale and that the solar farm is the first of three similarly sized projects.
Tom Melone, president of Ecos Energy, said Friday there will not be additional farms built at the site because an energy-incentive program that made the current proposal possible no longer exists.
He said his company is well aware of the opposition to the project and plans to work with residents to quell their concerns.
[That’s interesting considering he was a “no show” at the lat planning meeting]
“We want to be a good neighbor,” he said. “The project won’t make any noise, it would result in a road improvement .. and we think we’d be able to screen the view so that people don’t have to look at renewable energy.”
“We’ve looked for sites in San Diego County for a while,” Melone said. “It’s a balance between land prices and power prices and trying to be able to build a project that won’t be intrusive anywhere.”
Because the project is less than 10 acres it may not be subject to the rigorous and time-consuming environmental review and public hearing process required of bigger projects.
Gig Conaughton, a spokesman for the county’sPlanning & Development Services, said the permit can be approved on an administrative level because of its smaller size, but it will still require environmental review and findings of fact.
[I can’t seem to verify Gig Conaughton as a spokesman for the Planning & Development Services]
Any decision can also be appealed to the county Planning Commission.
Still, the county sent a letter to the developers on Tuesday warning that approval of the project is in doubt. The letter lays out several criteria or “findings” that the project must meet.
“Based on staff’s initial review of the proposed project, these findings (particularly in regard to bulk, scale, and coverage as well as community character) appear difficult to make,” the letter reads.
SDG&E Spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp said the Calico Ranch farm is very small compared to other green energy projects, but just as important. The utility is under orders to have 33 percent of the energy it produces come from green sources such as solar and wind by 2020. Right now they are at about 23 percent. Though small, she said, the solar farm will help meet the 2020 goal. [By how much?]
Melone said he hopes the $3.5 million project can break ground in early 2015 and be built by the end of that year.
The property where the farm is planned gently slopes down toward Highway 78. Once the land has been cleared, the panels would be likely visible from the highway, although partly obscured by some trees in the foreground.
Many trees and large rocks will have to be removed to level the property.
“How does a development of this size, which involves some 9,000 cubic yards of grading, come into a residentially zoned area of custom homes and ranches and situate itself without any type of public review process?”said Stephen Kerch, a local real estate business owner and member of the coalition.
Barbara Nigro and Tom Ingalls would perhaps be most impacted by the project — their home sits just a few dozen feet from where the solar farm would be located.
“Property values, water quality, the view, all are concerns,”said Ingalls. “If you look out our bedroom window it will be from here to that bush over there.”
“We’re very unhappy,” said Nigro. “And the people in Julian are very worried about it because if it sets a precedent, this 10-acre ruling kind of thing, (these types of projects) could go anywhere.”
On Monday night the Julian Community Planning Group, an advisory group to the county’s planning commission, will hold a hearing Monday, Jan. 13th, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall to discuss the project. Many are expected to attend, including Ecos Energy representatives.
“We have beautiful homes scattered throughout these hills,”Kerch said. “To situate something like this in the middle of that is going to create a diminution of value. There is no question of that.”