Imagine taking a nice Sunday excursion into the desert a few years from now. Maybe you’ll pass some Joshua trees and some spectacular geologic formations. But chances are, the feature you’ll see most will be miles and miles of high-voltage transmission lines.

Yes, massive transmission lines will soon dominate the desert scenery around Los Angeles. That’s thanks to the quest to boost alternative electrical power. Utilities in California are required to get one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Up till now, transmission lines that stretched across the hinterlands haven’t been particularly common because electricity-generating plants have been close to most cities.

But most alternative energy plants will be far from the city, such as the wind turbines to be built in the Tehachapi mountains north of Los Angeles and the seven solar plants that were announced a couple of weeks ago to be sited in the deserts generally east of Los Angeles. That means miles of high-voltage lines must be built to get the electricity from there to here.

I’m no electrical engineer, but I saw one report that said the kind of transmission line needed to carry the variable jolts of juice that come from renewable power plants is different from the line needed to carry uniform current from a traditional generating plant. That means the new lines can’t simply hook onto existing lines, and that, of course, multiplies the cost of the transmission lines needed for renewable plants.

Regardless, it is a certainty that the cost of the new lines will be shocking. One report from electric grid operators that came out a few weeks ago said the cost to build new transmission lines nationwide for wind power will be $100 billion. Add that to the more than $700 billion to build wind farms in the western Great Plains and elsewhere, and you’ve got an amount equal to the big stimulus package signed last week, and that’s just for one renewable energy source. Ratepayers, of course, will get stuck with the bill for that.

Oh, and you know you can count on another thing: lawsuits. Stretching new high-voltage lines across virgin land will mean getting the assent of landowners and various authorities. That will create quibbles about compensation, which, in turn, will cause delays and legal expenses – and add to the cost of building the transmission lines.

Environmentalists are likely to file suit, too. In an op-ed on these pages headlined "Jolt From Renewable Energy" in the Feb. 9 issue, local lawyer Ari Bessendorf wrote that environmentalists likely will object to the lines that will transport electricity from the Tehachapi wind power project to Los Angeles because they will traverse environmentally sensitive areas.

Beyond the costs and the lawsuits, there’s the Sunday drive aspect. The notion of taking a quick trip out of town to escape civilization for an afternoon will be far less appealing if you know you’ll be driving parallel to a network of high-voltage cables for much of the trip.

I’m not saying or suggesting that alternative energy shouldn’t be pursued. I am saying that alternative energy creates plenty of new costs, trade-offs and unpleasantries. Those little matters have gotten ignored or brushed aside in the single-minded, near-religious zeal to go green.

Environmentalists like to say that with renewable energy, the fuel is free. That’s true, except that with almost anything free, there are plenty of costs.

Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at