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Archive for the ‘PG&E’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about a growing movement to repurpose farmland and toxic waste sites for big renewable energy projects:

LEMOORE, Calif. — Thousands of acres of farmland here in the San Joaquin Valley have been removed from agricultural production, largely because the once fertile land is contaminated by salt buildup from years of irrigation.

But large swaths of those dry fields could have a valuable new use in their future — making electricity.

Farmers and officials at Westlands Water District, a public agency that supplies water to farms in the valley, have agreed to provide land for what would be one of the world’s largest solar energy complexes, to be built on 30,000 acres.

At peak output, the proposed Westlands Solar Park would generate as much electricity as several big nuclear power plants.

Unlike some renewable energy projects blocked by objections that they would despoil the landscape, this one has the support of environmentalists.

The San Joaquin initiative is in the vanguard of a new approach to locating renewable energy projects: putting them on polluted or previously used land. The Westlands project has won the backing of groups that have opposed building big solar projects in the Mojave Desert and have fought Westlands for decades over the district’s water use. Landowners and regulators are on board, too.

“It’s about as perfect a place as you’re going to find in the state of California for a solar project like this,” said Carl Zichella, who until late July was the Sierra Club’s Western renewable programs director. “There’s virtually zero wildlife impact here because the land has been farmed continuously for such a long time and you have proximity to transmission, infrastructure and markets.”

Recycling contaminated or otherwise disturbed land into green energy projects could help avoid disputes when developers seek to build sprawling arrays of solar collectors and wind turbines in pristine areas, where they can affect wildlife and water supplies.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for instance, are evaluating a dozen landfills and toxic waste sites for wind farms or solar power plants. In Arizona, the Bureau of Land Management has begun a program to repurpose landfills and abandoned mines for renewable energy.

In Southern California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has proposed building a 5,000-megawatt solar array complex, part of which would cover portions of the dry bed of Owens Lake, which was drained when the city began diverting water from the Owens Valley in 1913. Having already spent more than $500 million to control the intense dust storms that sweep off the lake, the agency hopes solar panels can hold down the dust while generating clean electricity for the utility. A small pilot project will help determine if solar panels can withstand high winds and dust.

“Nothing about this is simple, but it’s worth doing,” Austin Beutner, the department’s interim general manager, said of the pilot program.

All of the projects are in early stages of development, and many obstacles remain. But the support they’ve garnered from landowners, regulators and environmentalists has attracted the interest of big solar developers such as SunPower and First Solar as well as utilities under pressure to meet aggressive renewable energy mandates.

Those targets have become harder to reach as the sunniest undeveloped land is put off limits.

Last December, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced legislation to protect nearly a million acres of the Mojave Desert from renewable energy development.

But the senator’s bill also includes tax incentives for developers who build renewable energy projects on disturbed lands.

For Westlands farmers, the promise of the solar project is not clean electricity, but the additional water allocations they will get if some land is no longer used for farming.

“Westlands’ water supply has been chronically short over the past 18 years, so one of the things we’ve tried to do to balance supply and demand is to take land out of production,” said Thomas W. Birmingham, general manager of the water district, which acquired 100,000 acres and removed the land from most agricultural production. “The conversion of district-owned lands into areas that can generate electricity will help to reduce the cost of providing water to our farmers.”

You can read the rest of the story here:

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photo: PG&E

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

Amid the hullabaloo over government-chartered mortgage giants derailing the green financing program known as Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, the march toward distributed generation of renewable energy — that is, generating electricity from decentralized sources such as rooftop solar panels or backyard wind turbinescontinues.

Case in point: The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) announced Wednesday that it had awarded contracts to San Francisco’s Recurrent Energy to install 60 megawatts’ worth of solar panels in the region surrounding California’s state capital.

Rather than construct a central solar power station, Recurrent will scatter a dozen five-megawatt installations around two cities in Sacramento County. Each installation will be located near an existing substation, which means that the solar arrays can be plugged directly into the grid without requiring any expensive transmission upgrades.

As I wrote earlier this year in Grist, when SMUD put 100 megawatts of renewable energy contracts out for bid, the allocation sold out within a week. The utility is paying the solar developers a standard premium for their photovoltaic energy — called a feed-in-tariff. But according to calculations done by Vote Solar, a San Francisco non-profit that promotes solar energy, SMUD will pay no more for this clean green solar electricity than it does for fossil-generated power at peak demand times. A 40-percent plunge in solar module costs over the past year has made solar photovoltaic energy increasingly competitive with natural gas, the main fossil fuel used in California to generate electricity.

California’s two big investor-owned utilities, PG&E and Southern California Edison, have launched similar distributed generation programs, which will bring 1,000 megawatts of photovoltaic installations online over the next five years. At peak oputput, that’s the equivalent of a nuclear power plant.

Two weeks ago, PG&E cut the ribbon on the first project to come online as part of its 500-megawatt distributed generation initiative. The two-megawatt Vaca-Dixon Solar Station is built near a utility substation 50 miles north of San Francisco.

It took just nine months to install the fields of solar panels for the Vaca-Dixon station — that’s light speed in a state where the first new big solar thermal power plant in 20 years, BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah project, has been undergoing licensing for nearly three years.

Solar thermal power plants generate electricity by using mirrors to focus the sun on a liquid-filled boiler. The process creates create steam that drives a conventional turbine which can generate hundreds of megawatts of electricity. Solar thermal projects, by nature, are large centralized facilities, the clean and green versions of a big fossil-fuel power plant.

Photovoltaic farms, on the other hand, generate electricity when sunshine strikes semiconducting materials in a solar cell. If you want to produce more power, you just keep adding solar panels.

While BrightSource hopes to secure a license for its solar thermal project soon, the developer of a hybrid biomass solar trough power plant to be built in California’s Central Valley pulled the plug on the project last month, after spending 18 months and untold millions of dollars in the licensing process before the California Energy Commission.

PG&E has been depending on both those solar thermal projects to supply electricity to help it meet its renewable energy mandates. No wonder then, the utility’s growing enthusiasm for solar panel power. Photovoltaic farms do not have to be approved by California Energy Commission and can be built on already degraded land or close to cities.

And as I reported last month, the developer of another project being built to generate electricity for PG&E, the Alpine SunTower, decided to drop solar thermal technology made by its partner, eSolar, in favor of photovoltaic panels. The official explanation for the switch was that project was being downsized due to transmission constraints and solar panels proved a better fit.

But one has to wonder if economics as much as energy was behind the change. If so, deals like the one SMUD struck could be a recurrent theme.

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image: California Energy Commission

In The New York Times on Friday, I write about another setback in California’s scramble to meet its renewable energy targets:

The developer of a hybrid biomass solar power plant to be built in California has abruptly canceled the project, underscoring the challenges the state faces in meeting its ambitious renewable energy goals.

Martifer Renewables, a Portuguese company, had signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with the California utility PG&E for 106.8 megawatts. The power was to be generated from a pair of power plants called San Joaquin Solar 1 and 2 that would be built on 640 acres of agricultural land in Fresno County. The facility would produce electricity from a solar field by day and burn biomass collected from area farms by night. But 18 months into an extensive licensing process and after recently depositing $250,000 for a transmission study, Martifer notified the California Energy Commission last month that it was withdrawing its license application.

The developer’s representatives did not return a request for comment. But in a June 17 letter to the energy commission, Miguel Lobo, a Martifer executive, wrote, “We were not able at this time to resolve some of our issues regarding project economics and biomass supply amongst other things.”

Although local residents and regulators had raised issues about the proposed solar farm’s water consumption and other impacts, it was the project’s plan to operate around the clock by burning biomass that proved problematic, according to energy commission records.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: SolarCity

In The New York Times on Monday, I write about a $100 million tax equity fund created by PG&E Corporation to finance residential solar installations:

P.G.&E. Corporation, the California utility holding company, has created a $100 million tax-equity fund to finance residential solar installations by SunRun, a San Francisco start-up that leases photovoltaic arrays to homeowners.

The fund, managed by a P.G.&E. subsidiary, Pacific Energy Capital II, is the largest single solar leasing pool to date, according to the company, and marks the growing interest of utilities in the renewable energy financing business.

“We’re in somewhat of a unique position in that roughly half of the nation’s rooftop solar installations are in our service territory,” Brian Steel, P.G.&E.’s senior director of corporate strategy, said in an interview. “We’re at the proverbial ground zero of these new technologies and so perhaps more than any utility holding company in the country we have a strategic imperative to get ahead of the curve through having a propriety seat at the table with a partner like SunRun.”

The financing, announced Monday, follows P.G.&E.’s creation of a $60 million tax-equity vehicle in January for SolarCity, a Silicon Valley company that also leases solar arrays to homeowners.

The $100 million in financing is expected to fund solar installations for 3,500 homes in Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

“That a major energy company like P.G.&E. is coming to the table illustrates that distributed solar is becoming part of the mainstream energy business,” said Edward Fenster, SunRun’s chief executive.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: eSolar

This post first appeared on Grist.

Amid all the hope and hype about the nascent solar boom under way in California, there’s long been an elephant in the room – transmission. Billions and billions of dollars must be spent to build and upgrade transmission lines to connect dozens of proposed solar power plants to the grid.

Now that elephant has rolled over and squashed one project’s use of innovative solar technology. Last year, California utility PG&E signed a deal with NRG Energy, a New Jersey-based electricity provider, to buy power from a 92-megawatt solar farm called the Alpine SunTower to be built near the desert town of Lancaster, northeast of Los Angeles.

The power plant would deploy solar thermal technology developed by eSolar, a Pasadena startup founded by serial technology entrepreneur Bill Gross. NRG and eSolar earlier had inked a partnership to build 500 megawatts’ worth of solar farms. In January, eSolar reached an agreement with a Chinese company to supply technology for solar farms that would generate a massive 2,000 megawatts of electricity.

PG&E, however, submitted a letter recently to the California Public Utilities Commission  asking approval for a re-negotiated deal with NRG that has resulted in a downsizing of the Alpine SunTower project to 66 megawatts. And instead of deploying eSolar’s fields of mirrors that focus the sun on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a tower to create steam to drive a turbine, the power plant will generate electricity from photovoltaic panels like those found on residential rooftops.

The utility gave no reason for the technology switch. “NRG has not finalized the exact type of panels or the manufacturer of the panels,” a PG&E executive wrote in the letter. “Solar PV panels have been used in installations throughout the world, in both small and utility scale applications.”

However, when I contacted eSolar about the change, I received a joint statement from the company and NRG:

“NRG is returning the project to its originally proposed size to match the transmission capacity available to the project at this time,” it said. “Maintaining the project as previously announced would require waiting for additional interconnection studies and potential transmission upgrades that would delay the project delivery date.”

While solar panels are not as efficient as eSolar’s solar thermal technology in generating electricity, they are modular – meaning you can just keeping adding them to produce a desired amount of power or to match the transmission capacity in an area. ESolar’s power plants, on the other hand, are designed to be built in 46-megawatt units so there’s far less flexibility in scaling them up or down.

It’s too early to say whether this portends other switches from solar thermal to photovoltaic technology, especially as solar cell prices fall and California utilities scramble to meet a mandate requiring they obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of this year and 33 percent by 2020.

But the elephant is getting restless.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about California regulators’ preliminary decision to reject requests by two big utilities to install grid-connected fuel cells:

While Google, Wal-Mart and other corporations have embraced fuel cells, California regulators have turned down requests from the state’s two biggest utilities to install the technology.

In a preliminary decision, an administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission found unwarranted an application from Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California to spend more than $43 million to install fuel cells that would generate six megawatts of electricity.

The technology transforms hydrogen, natural gas or other fuels into electricity through an electrochemical process, emitting fewer or no pollutants, depending on the type of fuel used.

“It is unreasonable to spend three times the price paid to renewable generation for the proposed Fuel Cell Projects, which are nonrenewable and fueled by natural gas,” wrote the administrative law judge, Dorothy J. Duda, in a proposed ruling issued last week. “In addition, the applications do not satisfactorily address how full ratepayer funding of utility-owned fuel cell generation would enhance private market investment and market transformation of the fuel cell industry.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In a story I wrote with Clifford Krauss in Monday’s New York Times, I look at how the San Francisco Bay Area has is scrambling to prepare for the arrival of mass-market electric cars later this year:

SAN FRANCISCO — If electric cars have any future in the United States, this may be the city where they arrive first.

The San Francisco building code will soon be revised to require that new structures be wired for car chargers. Across the street from City Hall, some drivers are already plugging converted hybrids into a row of charging stations.

In nearby Silicon Valley, companies are ordering workplace charging stations in the belief that their employees will be first in line when electric cars begin arriving in showrooms. And at the headquarters of Pacific Gas and Electric, utility executives are preparing “heat maps” of neighborhoods that they fear may overload the power grid in their exuberance for electric cars.

“There is a huge momentum here,” said Andrew Tang, an executive at P.G.& E.

As automakers prepare to introduce the first mass-market electric cars late this year, it is increasingly evident that the cars will get their most serious tryout in just a handful of places. In cities like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and San Diego, a combination of green consciousness and enthusiasm for new technology seems to be stirring public interest in the cars.

The first wave of electric car buying is expected to begin around December, when Nissan introduces the Leaf, a five-passenger electric car that will have a range of 100 miles on a fully charged battery and be priced for middle-class families.

Several thousand Leafs made in Japan will be delivered to metropolitan areas in California, Arizona, Washington state, Oregon and Tennessee. Around the same time, General Motors will introduce the Chevrolet Volt, a vehicle able to go 40 miles on electricity before its small gasoline engine kicks in.

“This is the game-changer for our industry,” said Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s president and chief executive. He predicted that 10 percent of the cars sold would be electric vehicles by 2020.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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