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Archive for the ‘green policy’ Category

In The New York Times on Friday, I wrote about the organizers of California’s No on Proposition 23 campaign resurrecting their coalition to press for green energy policies in the Golden State and Washington:

George P. Shultz, the Republican former secretary of state, and Thomas F. Steyer, the Democratic hedge fund billionaire, are reviving the coalition that campaigned last year to defeat Proposition 23, the California ballot measure that would have derailed the state’s’ landmark global warming law.

Their new organization, Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs, will push for greater investment in green technology and the enforcement of the global warming law, known as A.B. 32, according to Mr. Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital Management in San Francisco.

“We’re going to be fighting to make sure it is implemented in a way that not just creates businesses here, but the jobs stay here, and we get the kind of growth that will show the country that this way of thinking is intensely practical and real world,” Mr. Steyer said on Friday at a news conference.

“I hate to say we’re getting the band back together, but we’re getting the band back together,” he added.

Mr. Steyer and Mr. Shultz served as co-chairmen of the “No on 23″ campaign, which drew support from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, mainstream businesses, labor unions, environmentalists and minority groups. The No campaign won 61.4 percent of the vote last November to reject Proposition 23, which was largely backed by two Texas oil companies.

Mr. Shultz said the new group also hopes to have an impact in Washington, but he and Mr. Steyer were vague on specific policies they would support.

“The most important thing the federal government can do is to have substantial and sustained support for energy R&D – that’s what’s going to produce the game changers,” Mr. Shultz said.

In a speech last week in San Francisco, Mr. Steyer laid out a national strategy to fight Republican efforts to limit the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

But on Friday, he kept his focus on California, saying that the “No on 23″ campaign had about $1 million left in its coffers that would be used to support the new group’s efforts.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Over the past year, a revolt against the rollout of utility Pacific Gas & Electric’s smart meters has swept through Northern California as some customers claimed the devices’ wireless transmission of electricity data was harming their health. In response, city councils in a number of cities tried to ban their installation.

On Thursday, PG&E, acting under orders from state regulators, unveiled a proposal to let customers have their smart meter’s radio turned off — for a price. PG&E would charge a one-time fee ranging from $105 to $270 and then customers would pay between $14 and $20 a month for two years. All in all, it would cost about $600 for the average customer to disable their smart meter.

“This cost is based on what it costs PG&E to disable the radio, adjust our IT system, adjust our billing system, and to manually read customers,” Paul Moreno, a PG&E spokesperson, said in an email.

In other words, that’s the price of dumbing down smart meters.

Tens of the millions of the devices are being installed nationwide and are a linchpin of the coming smart grid. Smart meters monitor electricity use in real time, allowing utilities to better balance supply and demand and charge accordingly. Customers can use that data to adjust their electricity use when rates are high and pinpoint the power hogs in their homes.

PG&E expects nearly 150,000 of its 5.1 million customers to shut down their smart meters’ radio transmitters.

“There is a loss of the benefits of the smart grid (power outage detection, ability to participate in demand response programs to reduce peak demand energy and better utilize renewable power),” said Moreno.

While the rollout has gone fairly smoothly in Southern California, some activists in the greater Bay Area claim the frequencies emitted by the smart meters’ wireless transmitters have triggered migraines and myriad other health problems.

“I’m here to charge you with the following criminal counts,” one person told members of the California Public Utilities Commission at a meeting last September. “This is misguided, Big Brother green ideology that the smart meters support.”

“This is massive experimentation of massive proportions and we are the victims,” declared another person.

Mobile phones, microwave ovens, and a host of other household gadgets also emit such frequencies, and to date there has been no scientific evidence to support claims about the health effects of smart meters.

(When I was at Southern California Edison in Los Angeles last October, an executive told me that utility had received only a handful of complaints about its smart meters.)

Nonetheless, regulators ordered PG&E to allow customers to opt out of the smart-meter program. The utilities commission must approve the utility’s proposal, so expect more fireworks over the cost of disabling smart meters.

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In The New York Times on Tuesday, I wrote about the strategy of San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, the leader of the campaign against Proposition 23 last year, to fight efforts to restrict the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions:

Is Thomas F. Steyer the anti-Koch?

For years, Mr. Steyer, a billionaire San Francisco hedge fund manager, assiduously maintained a low profile while becoming a major donor to Democratic candidates. That changed in 2010 when he led the successful fight to defeat Proposition 23, a California ballot measure backed by two Texas oil companies and a company controlled by Charles G. and David H. Koch, the secretive billionaire brothers and bankrollers of conservative causes.

Proposition 23 would have effectively derailed the state’s landmark global warming law, which would have been a big setback for California’s blooming green technology industry. Mr. Steyer, the founder of Farallon Capital Management, is the main financial backer of Greener Capital, a venture firm that invests in renewable energy start-ups.

Now Mr. Steyer appears to be itching to take on the Koch brothers and their supporters as Republican lawmakers seek to limit the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. “As an investor who one might say is insanely obsessed with energy and its generation and use around the world, it seems crazy to me we would roll back science-based clean air standards because there are skillful political operatives and wealthy political donors who really want to get rid of E.P.A. regulations,” he said in a speech Monday evening at the Cleantech Forum conference in San Francisco. “That seems nuts to me.”

While Mr. Steyer did not mention the Koch brothers directly in his speech, he assailed their support for Proposition 23 during the campaign.

Mr. Steyer, who said he had spent time consulting with the Obama administration after last November’s election, laid out a political strategy to focus on swing states and promote environmental regulation as a boon for job creation, drawing on lessons from the battle over Proposition 23.

“It’s all about public health and clean air,” he said. “It’s all about creating new jobs and really what we’re fighting is self-interested dirty energy companies.”

He noted that opponents of a Democrats’ failed efforts to pass climate change legislation last year had gone state by state to talk about potential job losses from capping greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our strategy going forward as a group is that we have to have answers on the state and local level,” Mr. Steyer said. “The idea that we would change the way energy is generated and used in the United States without engaging the American people locally in a real way seems to me to be wrong.”

Mr. Steyer said he had consulted with Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader and adviser to former President Bill Clinton, to gain a better understanding of how the civil rights movement organized its campaigns.

“I asked, ‘How did you guys do it? How did you change the way Americans think about civil rights, something that nobody was anxious to engage on as far as I can tell but where there was a gross need for change, just as there is here,’ ” Mr. Steyer said.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Better Place

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

First Chicago gets Rahm Emanuel, now electric cars.

Well, at least an electric car infrastructure. In a move that indicates electric cars won’t just be a phenomenon of Greater Portlandia, utility Exelon and the city will roll out 280 charging stations across Chicagoland by year’s end. Two stations will even be solar-powered.

It’s part of a smart grid demonstration project, partially funded by the federal government, to get a jump-start on the potential impact on the electric system if Chicagoans start buying battery-powered vehicles in big numbers.

Windy, snow-swept Chicago doesn’t exactly pop to the top of the list as an EV epicenter. But former Mayor Richard M. Daley made greening the second city a priority, and according to a spokesperson for Exelon — which owns Chicago utility ComEd — Illinois ranks in the top 10 when it comes to hybrid car ownership.

“ComEd is preparing now for what may be a large influx of PHEVs in the market and managing its impact on the grid,” Kerry Kelly-Guiliano, the Exelon spokesperson, said in an email, referring to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. “And they are putting in place the charging infrastructure to demonstrate that Chicago is plug-in ready.”

The locations for the charging stations have yet to be determined, but Kelly-Guiliano said they would most likely be deployed at places like shopping malls, Chicago’s two airports, and rest stops along the Illinois Tollway in the city.

Chicago follows another unlikely hot spot for electric cars, the petro capital of Houston. Late last year, utility NRG Energy announced plans to build a $10 million electric charging network in a 25-mile radius surrounding downtown Houston.

Initially, Chicago’s electric charging network will be used by a fleet of electric and hybrid cars maintained by ComEd.

Now we just want to see Mayor Emanuel behind the wheel of a Chevy Volt.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Are Californians forking over too much green for green energy?

A new report from a ratepayers advocacy group found that the price of electricity in 59 percent of renewable energy contracts signed by the state’s three big utilities exceeded the market price referent, or MPR for all you utility junkies.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty regulatory calculus, the market price referent is based on the price of electricity from a 500-megawatt natural gas-fired plant, the dominant power source in California. The MPR is a benchmark to gauge the competitiveness of solar power plants, wind farms and other renewable energy projects.

The “Green Rush” report from the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, which is part of the California Public Utilities Commission, generated headlines in a state that loves to hate its monopoly power providers.

“Of the 184 renewable energy contracts presented to the CPUC for approval since 2002, only two have been rejected,” the report states. “When these renewable contracts start delivering energy, costs will impact ratepayers.”

But a closer look shows that the reality is a bit more complicated.

The ratepayers advocate looked at contracts signed by California’s three big investor-owned utilities – which supply 68 percent of the state’s electricity – since the Legislature imposed a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, in 2002. The RPS required utilities to obtain 20 percent of their electricity supplies from renewable sources by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020.

According to the report, 77 percent of the contracts signed by Pacific Gas & Electric were above the MPR as were 41 percent of those inked by Southern California Edison and 47 percent of deals with San Diego Gas & Electric.

Regulators keep the terms of those contracts in a black box so it’s impossible to know just how much more utilities are paying for renewable energy. Most contacts are for solar power.

However, not a dime gets paid until a project comes online and begins generating electricity. So, PG&E may well have agreed to exorbitant rates in a contract it signed in 2009 with a company planning to beam solar energy from space generated by an orbiting power plant (really). But unless those rockets lift off with their payloads of solar panels, the ratepayers are off the hook.

According to the report 14 percent of renewable energy contracts have failed so far and 15 percent have been delayed. Since 2002, photovoltaic module prices have plunged and as some projects are scrapped they inevitably will be replaced by cheaper technology.

In December, for instance, Southern California Edison abruptly canceled a longstanding contact with Tessera Solar for the 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant to be built in the Mojave Desert. A week later, Tessera sold the project to K Road Power, a New York firm that says it will replace most of the solar dishes, which have never been commercially deployed, with tried-and-true solar panels like those found on home rooftops. And this month, Tessera sold a second big solar dish project, the 709-megawatt Imperial Valley power plant, to AES Solar, which builds photovoltaic farms.

Solar module prices have fallen 50 percent over the past two years and it’s probably no coincidence that utilities increasingly are signing big deals for photovoltaic power plants.

When Southern California Edison this month submitted for approval contracts for 20 small photovoltaic farms that would generate 250 megawatts of electricity, all were priced under the MPR.

A word about the MPR: It’s somewhat a theoretical construct as it assumes fuel prices are fixed for the life of the power plant. Natural gas prices, of course, fluctuate wildly and currently are headed down. In a of couple years, who knows? The MPR also does not take into account the cost of carbon that may be imposed on greenhouse gas-spewing power plants in the years to come.

The ratepayers advocate, however, is justified in arguing for more transparency in the approval of these renewable energy contracts. Opening up that black box and letting in some sunshine just might spur more competition for solar contracts.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

In just about every story on renewable energy, there’s a familiar cast of characters: green power developers, utilities, and sundry state and federal regulators. But there’s one key player that often lurks in the background – the grid operator.

In the Golden State, most of the power grid is controlled by the California Independent System Operator. Based in a suburb of Sacramento, Cal ISO, as it’s known, essentially ensures that electricity supply and demand stay in balance to prevent brownouts, blackouts, and other catastrophic failures.

The agency also approves requests for big solar power plants, wind farms, and other renewable energy sources to connect to the grid. You may win approval for your project from the California Energy Commission and the United States Interior Department, but unless Cal ISO gives you the green light to plug into the grid, that big solar farm is nothing but a big white elephant.

The prospect of thousands of megawatts of intermittent sources of electricity like solar and wind jolting the grid — and then blinking off when a cloud passes overhead or the wind dies — poses a huge balancing act for grid operators. That’s especially true in place like California, which has mandated that a third of its electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2020.

So it was significant, if little noticed, when Cal ISO this month announced it would begin to integrate energy storage devices like batteries and flywheels into the grid.

Energy storage is increasingly seen as crucial for greening the grid. Electricity from wind farms, which in California typically generate the most power at night when demand is low, could be stored in giant battery arrays and released during the day when demand and rates rise.

Utility Pacific Gas & Electric, for instance, plans to store energy in the form of compressed air pumped into a cavern. When needed, the air would be released to power an electricity-generating turbine. The utility is also exploring using renewable energy to pump water uphill to a reservoir. When demand spikes, the water would be allowed to flow downhill and run a turbine.

Another utility, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, plans to install lithium ion battery arrays at solar-powered homes to store electricity produced by photovoltaic arrays.

And last year, the California Legislature passed a law requiring regulators to determine if the state’s three big investor-owned utilities should be required to generate a certain percentage of electricity from energy storage.

Cal ISO’s early energy storage plans are modest, with just an initial 5 to 10 megawatts of storage integrated into the grid once federal officials given their okay. But it’s likely to be only the start.

“The integration of renewable sources introduces new requirements to reliably manage the grid,” Cal ISO’s chief executive, Yakout Mansour, said in a statement. “Our five-year strategic plan points out that storage technologies bring unique operational solutions to grid management as a tool for helping balance renewables on the system.”

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

If you want a birds-eye view of the future of power, scramble up to the roof of a 562,089-square-foot warehouse in Ontario, a city that sits in the smoggy heart of Southern California’s Inland Empire east of Los Angeles.

On a roof the size of several football fields, workers are busy installing 11,591 solar panels that will generate 2.55 megawatts of electricity. Across the street is another massive warehouse blanketed in photovoltaic panels. Beyond that lie two more warehouses with solar arrays under construction.

Warehouses themselves use relatively little electricity, so owners lease their roofs to utility Southern California Edison, which own the solar arrays and feeds the power they produce into the grid. Over the next five years, the utility will install 250 megawatts worth of photovoltaic panels on big commercial rooftops and buy an additional 250 megawatts from solar developers that will build and operate warehouse arrays. At peak output, those solar arrays will generate as much electricity as a mid-sized fossil-fuel power plant.

“In the Inland Empire you’ve got big buildings and good sun,” Rudy Perez, manager of the utility’s solar rooftop program, said as we stood on the top of the warehouse where solar panels covered the roof as far as the eye could see.

He noted that the number of applications from solar developers to connect rooftop photovoltaic projects to the grid has tripled in the past six months alone.

“It’s one thing when you have one building in an area with a big solar array, another when you have five,” said Perez. “As you get into the higher and higher numbers, that’s where you really need smart grid technology.”

That’s because the rise of renewable energy and electric cars will vastly complicate how the power grid operates.

“We could literally have more change in the system in the next 10 years than we’ve had in the last 100 years,” Theodore F. Craver, Jr., chief executive of the utility’s parent company, Edison International, said in an interview after meeting with executives from French utility giant EDF. The French had come to Los Angeles to learn about Southern California Edison’s smart grid efforts.

In the current, mostly analog grid, the distribution of electricity is fairly straightforward. A utility or another company builds a fossil-fuel-powered plant and flips the switch. For the next 30 years or more, electricity flows into high-voltage transmission lines hour after hour, day after day.

The transmission lines carry the electricity to a distribution system where transformers “step down” the power to a lower voltage and then send it to homes and businesses. And though technological improvements have been made over the decades to the grid, it remains essentially a one-way system. And while storms and accidents can bring down power lines and blackouts can occur when demand soars on a hot day and electricity generation can’t keep up, power flows 24/7 from a natural gas or coal-fired plant.

Now consider the challenges posed by intermittent sources of electricity like solar and wind, not to mention the prospect of thousands of cars plugging into the grid at once to recharge their batteries.

“A rolling cloud can cut electrical output by 80 percent in a just few seconds,” says Perez. “That’s one reason why we have to be smart about where we put [solar].”

And why it’s necessary to build a digitalized grid that deploys software, sensors, and other hardware to monitor and manage electricity distribution and troubleshoot problems.

Instead of relying on dozens of big power plants, the smart grid of the future will increasingly tap thousands or millions of individual rooftop power plants and wind turbines. It will need to collect information about their electricity output and balance the flow of electricity throughout the grid — to ensure that a neighborhood doesn’t go dark because a large cloud is hovering over the solar array atop the local Costco.

“As we start to replace more of the generation with different technologies, we are altering the physics of the system,” said Pedro Pizarro, Southern California Edison’s executive vice president of power operations.

This drizzly October morning is a case in point. A ceiling of gray clouds hangs over the four Ontario warehouses that altogether would be generating some 7.59 megawatts if the sun were shining at peak intensity. So the smart grid also needs to be able to forecast the weather and know, say, that for the next few days electricity production is going to fall in one area while it might rise another, sun-splashed one.

“There’s new technologies that allow for much precise control of the grid,” Perez said. “One of the concerns would be that the intermittency of one of these buildings causes problem for our customers.”

Down the coast at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), researchers have built what looks like a mirrored hemispherical bowl that scans the skies and snaps two photos a minute to predict when clouds will form over the campus’ one-megawatt worth of solar panels that are installed at seven locations.

“We do a 3-D characterization of all clouds on the horizon every 30 seconds,” Byron Washom, director of strategic energy initiatives at UCSD, said at a solar conference in October. “And then in the next second we note its vector, its speed, its height, its opacity and we characterize it.”

“So we actually begin to forecast what type of cloud is going to intersect where the sun is,” added Washom. “We know where it is at all times in the sky [in relation to] each individual panel on campus.”

He said the scientists’ goal is to be able to use the machines, which cost $12,000 apiece and have a range of one kilometer (0.62 miles), to do hourly forecasts with 90 percent accuracy.

“So a capital investment of less than $1 million could bring this to the Southern California rooftop market if we crack the science,” said Washom, referring to the concentration of warehouses in places such as Ontario.

Another smart grid strategy is to store energy generated by solar arrays in batteries and feed power to the grid when renewable energy production falls or demand spikes.

Washom showed a picture of a device that looks like the back end of a DVD player. The Sanyo lithium ion battery can store 1.5-kilowatt hours of electricity. UCSD plans to stack them like servers in a data center so it can store 1.5 megawatts of electricity produced by campus solar arrays.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, SolarCity, a solar panel installer, and electric carmaker Tesla Motors have received a $1.8 million state grant for a pilot project that will put lithium ion car batteries in half a dozen homes with rooftop solar arrays.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), meanwhile, plans to install lithium ion batteries in 15 residences as part of its smart solar homes program. The utility will also put two 500-kilowatt batteries near substations to test energy storage on a larger scale.

Such systems are expensive but if the price eventually falls, utilities would be able to use them to release power to the grid when, say, a one of Washom’s cloud-forecasting devices predicts electricity production will fall off. (SMUD also will deploy 70 solar stations to help it forecast weather conditions that could affect electricity production, according to Mark Rawson, the utility’s project manager for advanced, renewable and distributed generation.)

So will the smart grid and increasing production of rooftop solar and other renewable energy spell the end of big centralized power stations and the multibillion-dollar transmission infrastructure? Will the future bring some sort of Ecotopian nirvana where power is put in the hands of the people (or at least on their rooftops)?

Not anytime soon, according to Pizarro of Southern California Edison, barring technological breakthroughs that dramatically reduce the cost of photovoltaic power.

“Right now solar is increasing but it’s not overwhelming the system,” says Pizarro, noting that rooftop photovoltaics remain a tiny percentage of the overall power supply even in places like California, where utilities must obtain a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Still, renewable energy “has the potential to reduce the generation from central stations,” Pizarro said. “It’s a question of how much and how soon.”

The other wild card is the price of oil and natural gas, notes Craver, Edison’s chief executive. When the cost of natural gas — the dominant energy source in California — rises, renewable energy becomes more attractive. When natural gas prices plunge, as they have over the past couple of years, installing solar becomes far more expensive in relative terms.

At last month’s solar conference, SMUD’s Rawson said his utility currently relies on photovoltaics, or PV, for less than one percent of its electricity generation. But that will likely change dramatically in the years ahead, he says, as the smart grid evolves to handle the widespread distribution of solar power.

“We’re trying to change PV from something that is tolerated by the utility to something that is controlled by the utility,” he said.

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photo: White House

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I have an exlusive about Silicon Valley solar startup Solyndra’s move to shutter a factory and lay off workers just weeks after it opened a state-of the art plant built with a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee:

SAN FRANCISCO — Solyndra, a Silicon Valley solar-panel maker that won half a billion dollars in federal aid to build a state-of-the-art robotic factory, plans to announce on Wednesday that it will shut down an older plant and lay off workers.

The cost-cutting move, which will reduce the company’s previously announced production capacity, is a sign of the notable shift in the prospects for cutting-edge American solar companies, which now face intense price competition from Chinese manufacturers that use more established photovoltaic technologies.

Just seven weeks ago, Solyndra opened Fab 2, a $733 million factory in Fremont, Calif., to make its high-tech solar panels. The new plant was supposed to be the first phase of a rapid expansion of the company.

Instead, Solyndra has decided to shutter the old plant and postpone plans to expand Fab 2, which was built with a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

“Fab 2 is much more efficient and cost-effective than our existing facility,” Brian Harrison, Solyndra’s chief executive, said in an interview. “We’re adjusting our plans to be more in line with where the market is and where our business is at the moment.”

When Solyndra filed for an initial public stock offering in December, it estimated it would have a total production capacity of 610 megawatts by 2013 if its two plants were fully built out. The company now expects it have capacity of 285 to 300 megawatts by 2013.

Solyndra abandoned plans for the stock offering in June, citing market conditions.

The company is the most prominent of a wave of Silicon Valley solar start-ups that hoped to transform the economics of the industry. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Energy Secretary Steven Chu helped break ground on Fab 2 last year, and President Obama made an appearance at the unfinished factory in May to extol Solyndra’s innovative technology.

Mr. Harrison noted that the market had undergone a significant shift since Solyndra filed for the stock offering, with solar module prices plummeting as low-cost Chinese manufacturers like Suntech and Yingli ramped up production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In a follow up to my story in Friday’s New York Times on the beginning of a solar building boom in the desert Southwest, I take a look at California regulators’ approval of the seventh Big Solar farm in two months, the 663.5-megawatt Calico project:

In an article in Friday’s paper, I write about the solar thermal power plant building boom now under way in California’s Mojave Desert. The looming expiration of crucial federal financial support for the multibillion-dollar projects, though, could turn the boom to bust.

But that hasn’t deterred California regulators, who on Thursday approved the seventh large-scale solar thermal farm since late August.

After years of painstaking environmental review, the California Energy Commission has been green-lighting the massive solar power plants at warp speed so developers can break ground before year’s end and qualify for a government cash grant that covers 30 percent of the cost of construction.

The latest approval goes to Tessera Solar’s Calico project, to be built in the San Bernardino County desert in Southern California. Originally proposed to generate 850 megawatts -– at peak output, that’s close to the production of a nuclear power plant -– the project was whittled down to 663.5 megawatts to lessen the impact on wildlife like the desert tortoise and the bighorn sheep.

It’s difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of even the smaller version of the Calico project until you’ve seen Tessera’s Suncatcher solar dishes on the ground. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a prototype six-dish Suncatcher solar farm at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

Resembling a giant mirrored satellite receiver, each Suncatcher stands 40 feet tall and 38 feet wide with a Stirling engine suspended on an arm over the center of the dish. As the dish tracks the sun, its mirrors concentrate sunlight on the hydrogen gas-filled heat engine. As the superheated gas expands, it drives pistons, which generates 25 kilowatts of electricity.

Now imagine planting 26,540 Suncatchers on 4,613 acres of federal land for the Calico project. Tessera, based in Houston, has also received approval for a 709-megawatt solar power plant to be built in California near the Mexico border. That will require the installation of 28,360 Suncatchers.

“These desert solar projects will provide clean power for our schools, homes, and businesses while reducing fossil fuel consumption, creating local jobs, and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten California’s economy and environment,” Anthony Eggert, a member of the California Energy Commission, said in a statement on Thursday.

The cost to build the two projects will exceed $4.6 billion, according to Tessera, and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll go online unless the company receives federal loan guarantees that allow developers to borrow up to 80 percent of construction costs on favorable terms. That program expires next September, and Tessera needs to start putting steel into the ground by the end of the year to qualify for the cash grant program.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Friday’s New York Times, I write about the beginning of the long-awaited solar boom in the Mojave Desert and how it may well be short-lived if crucial federal incentives for renewable energy are allowed to expire in the coming months:

NIPTON, Calif. — The long-promised solar building boom in the desert Southwest is finally under way. Here in the Mojave Desert, a dice throw away from the Nevada border, giant road graders and a small army of laborers began turning the dirt for BrightSource Energy’s $2 billion Ivanpah project, the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in two decades.

The Ivanpah plant is the first of nine multibillion-dollar solar farms in California and Arizona that are expected to begin construction before the end of the year as developers race to qualify for tens of billions of dollars in federal grants and loan guarantees that are about to expire. The new plants will generate nearly 4,000 megawatts of electricity if built — enough to power three million homes.

But this first wave may very well be the last for a long time, according to industry executives. Without continued government incentives that vastly reduce the risks to investors, solar companies planning another dozen or so plants say they may not be able to raise enough capital to proceed.

“I think we’re going to see a burst of projects over the next two months and then you’re going to hear the sounds of silence for quite a while,” said David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy, on Wednesday after he announced that his company would invest $300 million in the Ivanpah plant.

Solar developers depend on two federal programs to make their projects financially viable. The most crucial is a loan guarantee program, expiring next September, that allows them to borrow money on favorable terms to finance up to 80 percent of construction costs.

The other is the option to take a 30 percent tax credit in the form of a cash payment once a project is built. Although the tax credit does not expire until the end of 2016, the option to take it as a cash payment disappears this year, making it far less valuable to a start-up company that is just beginning to generate revenue.

With both Democrats and Republicans promising to rein in the federal budget, it is unclear whether lawmakers will extend the programs in any form. “That could stall a number of projects and even lead to the failure of some,” said Ted Sullivan, an analyst with Lux Research, a consulting firm in New York.

Yet no one in the desert here wants to think too much about those looming clouds.

“Ivanpah represents a transformational moment in our energy equation,” said John Woolard, BrightSource’s chief executive, who was joined Wednesday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Ivanpah’s groundbreaking ceremony. “It demonstrates that the U.S. can lead in the drive for renewable energy at scale by building the largest solar plant in the world with new technology.”

The eight California projects that are expected to break ground this year will turn 46 square miles of the desert into a futuristic landscape of mirrors, towers and solar dishes. State officials estimate the plants will create 8,000 jobs in a state with a 12.4 percent unemployment rate.

During its three years of construction, Ivanpah will employ as many as 1,000 laborers in a recession-scarred region.

“In the last year, I haven’t worked,” said Basilio Yniguez, a 36-year-old pipefitter and father of seven, as he helped build a holding pen last week for threatened desert tortoises on the Ivanpah site. “Thanks to the green thing going up, I’m working.”

The state is supporting the industry in part by mandating that California utilities get a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

“When you look at the raw number of kilowatt-hours we need, I don’t see how you get there without large central station solar projects,” said Pedro Pizarro, a top executive with Southern California Edison, one of the state’s largest utilities.

Unlike the photovoltaic panel systems found on rooftops, most of the new solar plants will use thousands of large mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam that drives conventional electricity-generating turbines.

“Without the Department of Energy coming in to assume a lot of the risk, you might not find lenders willing to lend, particularly if you’re a start-up with untried technology,” said Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Other hurdles also stand in the way of the solar expansion. For some plants, multibillion-dollar transmission lines must be built to carry electricity from the desert to cities. Some environmentalists continue to oppose the projects’ impact on imperiled wildlife, such as the desert tortoise, and may sue to stop construction.

The competitiveness of large-scale solar thermal plants in California also depends on the cost of natural gas, the state’s dominant source of electricity. According to Mr. Bullard, gas-fueled plants can produce electricity for about 10 cents a kilowatt-hour. After including the government subsidies, solar thermal plants are expected to generate power at 13 to 17 cents a kilowatt-hour, which the industry says is close enough in price to be competitive.

So far, Ivanpah is the only California solar thermal project to win a government loan guarantee, although other projects have applied and are awaiting decisions from the Energy Department.

“We are sensitive to the deadlines and are doing everything we can so that these projects can move forward,” said Jonathan Silver, the executive director of the department’s loan program. “There’s a significant demand for these funds.”

The uncertainty has left even some of the licensed solar projects in limbo.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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