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Archive for the ‘PG&E’ Category

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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The ability to fast-charge electric cars is seen as key to the adoption of battery-powered vehicles. But as I wrote in The New York Times on Thursday, utilities are worried such devices will overload the grid:

Think, the Norwegian electric automaker, announced a deal this week with a California company, AeroVironment, a maker of electric vehicle charging stations, to introduce fast-charging stations that can charge its battery-powered City car to 80 percent capacity in as little as 15 minutes.

A conventional charger can take eight or more hours to charge an electric car, depending on the battery.

“The development and deployment of very-fast-charge stations will help speed the electrification of automobiles in the United States and globally,” Richard Canny, Think’s chief executive, said in a statement.

But utilities — concerned that fast-chargers could overload the electricity grid — are more cautious.

Think and AeroVironment did not reveal the voltage of their fast-charger but such devices — known in the industry as “Level 3” chargers — generally average around 440 volts. Most household appliances run on 110 volts.

“It is premature to evaluate the feasibility or safety of Level 3 fast-charging equipment,” wrote Christopher Warner, a lawyer for the utility Pacific Gas and Electric, in a brief filed with the California Public Utilities Commission in October. “Such charging may require large investments in infrastructure and load management constraints in order to prevent ‘mini-peaks’ and localized impacts on grid reliability.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: SolarReserve

In The New York Times on Saturday, I write about utilities NV Energy and PG&E signing power purchase agreements to buy electricity from SolarReserve’s solar farms, which store the sun’s energy in molten salt to generate power at night:

Solar farms that would serve two Western utilities are planning to use technology that will generate electricity after the sun goes down, a move that could be a potential game-changer for the industry.

The two farms being planned by SolarReserve of Santa Monica, Calif., would store the sun’s energy in molten salt, releasing the heat at night when it could be used to drive a turbine and generate electricity. Two utilities, NV Energy in Nevada and Pacific Gas and Electric, Northern California’s biggest utility, would buy the power.

The sun’s intermittent nature has made large-scale solar farms most useful as so-called peaker plants that supply electricity when demand spikes, typically in the late afternoon on hot days. But the ability of SolarReserve to store the sun’s energy for use at night would be a step forward in technology.

“The energy storage characteristics were a key factor in our selection of the Tonopah solar energy project,” NV Energy’s chief executive, Michael Yackira, said in a statement. The utility will be able to draw electricity from the solar farm more or less on demand, which makes it easier to balance the load on the power grid.

NV Energy would buy power from the 100-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project being planned on federal land near Tonopah, Nev., about 215 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

“We’re expecting to put in 12 hours of storage, which allows us to move power within the day to meet peak requirements as well as to operate at full load,” SolarReserve’s chief executive, Kevin Smith, said of the Tonopah plant.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In Tuesday’s New York Times, I write about California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to ban renewable energy production in two proposed national monuments in the Mojave Desert:

AMBOY, Calif. — Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in Congress on Monday to protect a million acres of the Mojave Desert in California by scuttling some 13 big solar plants and wind farms planned for the region.

But before the bill to create two new Mojave national monuments has even had its first hearing, the California Democrat has largely achieved her aim. Regardless of the legislation’s fate, her opposition means that few if any power plants are likely to be built in the monument area, a complication in California’s effort to achieve its aggressive goals for renewable energy.

Developers of the projects have already postponed several proposals or abandoned them entirely. The California agency charged with planning a renewable energy transmission grid has rerouted proposed power lines to avoid the monument.

“The very existence of the monument proposal has certainly chilled development within its boundaries,” said Karen Douglas, chairwoman of the California Energy Commission.

For Mrs. Feinstein, creation of the Mojave national monuments would make good on a promise by the government a decade ago to protect desert land donated by an environmental group that had acquired the property from the Catellus Development Corporation.

“The Catellus lands were purchased with nearly $45 million in private funds and $18 million in federal funds and donated to the federal government for the purpose of conservation, and that commitment must be upheld. Period,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement.

The federal government made a competing commitment in 2005, though, when President George W. Bush ordered that renewable energy production be accelerated on public lands, including the Catellus holdings. The Obama administration is trying to balance conservation demands with its goal of radically increasing solar and wind generation by identifying areas suitable for large-scale projects across the West.

Mrs. Feinstein heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, giving her substantial clout over that agency, which manages the government’s landholdings. Her intervention in the Mojave means it will be more difficult for California utilities to achieve a goal, set by the state, of obtaining a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; projects in the monument area could have supplied a substantial portion of that power.

“This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmentalist and a partner with a venture capital firm that invested in a solar developer called BrightSource Energy. In September, BrightSource canceled a large project in the monument area.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Ausra

Silicon Valley solar company Ausra has sold its sole remaining solar power plant project in the United States, all but completing its exit from solar farming. As I write Thursday in The New York Times:

Ausra is continuing its exit from the business of building solar power plants, announcing on Wednesday that it has sold a planned California solar farm to First Solar.

The Carrizo Energy Solar Farm was one of the three large solar power plants planned within a few miles of each other in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast.

Together they would supply nearly 1,000 megawatts of electricity to the utility Pacific Gas and Electric.

First Solar will not build the Carrizo project, and the deal has resulted in the cancellation of Ausra’s contract to provide 177 megawatts to P.G.&E. — a setback in the utility’s efforts to meet state-mandated renewable energy targets.

But it could speed up approval of the two other solar projects, which have been bogged down in disputes over their impact on wildlife, and face resistance from residents concerned about the concentration of so many big solar farms in a rural region.

First Solar is only buying an option on the farmland where the Ausra project was to be built, according to Alan Bernheimer, a First Solar spokesman. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

The deal will let First Solar revamp its own solar farm, a nearby 550-megawatt project called Topaz that will feature thousands of photovoltaic panels arrayed on miles of ranchland.

“This will allow us to reconfigure Topaz in a way that lessens its impact and creates wildlife corridors,” said Mr. Bernheimer.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

California utility PG&E on Monday announced two new Big Solar deals that will likely to ramp up the debate over solar thermal power plants’ thirst for water in the desert Southwest. As I write in The New York Times:

The West’s water wars are likely to intensify with Pacific Gas and Electric’s announcement on Monday that it would buy 500 megawatts of electricity from two solar power plant projects to be built in the California desert.

The Genesis Solar Energy Project would consume an estimated 536 million gallons of water a year, while the Mojave Solar Project would pump 705 million gallons annually for power-plant cooling, according to applications filed with the California Energy Commission.

With 35 big solar farm projects undergoing licensing or planned for arid regions of California alone, water is emerging as a contentious issue.

The Genesis and Mojave projects will use solar trough technology that deploys long rows of parabolic mirrors to heat a fluid to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. The steam must be condensed back into water and cooled for re-use.

Solar trough developers prefer to use so-called wet cooling in which water must be constantly be replenished to make up for evaporation. Regulators, meanwhile, are pushing developers to use dry cooling, which takes about 90 percent less water but is more expensive and reduces the efficiency –- and profitability – of a power plant.

NextEra Energy Resources, a subsidiary of the utility giant FPL Group, is developing the Genesis project in the Chuckwalla Valley in the Sonoran Desert. The twin solar farms would tap about 5 percent of the valley’s available water.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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nextlight renewable power agua caliente

That was quick: Just days after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation that would have limited utilities’ ability to buy out-of-state renewable energy, utility PG&E on Thursday asked regulators to approve a deal with an Arizona solar farm to supply 290 megawatts of electricity. As I write in The New York Times on Friday:

Pacific Gas & Electric, the big California utility, asked regulators on Thursday to approve the purchase of electricity from an Arizona solar power plant, only days after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation that would have limited utilities’ ability to tap out-of-state projects to meet renewable energy mandates.

NextLight Renewable Power will construct the 290-megawatt Aqua Caliente photovoltaic farm on private land in Yuma County, Ariz. The company, based in San Francisco, signed a deal with P.G.&E. in June to supply 230 megawatts from a solar power plant to be built outside of Los Angeles.

The legislation vetoed by Mr. Schwarzenegger on Sunday would have required California utilities to obtain 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, mostly from in-state projects.

Environmental groups and unions supported that provision as a way to limit the need to build new transmission lines and to keep construction jobs in California. But the governor said it would hamstring utilities from complying with the 33 percent target, which he supports.

According to the filing the utility made Thursday, Arizona regulators have already approved the project and NextLight expects to obtain county building permits within a few months. In contrast, the licensing of a solar power plant in California can take years. The Agua Caliente project is also located near existing transmission lines that connect to California’s power grid.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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