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Archive for the ‘renewable energy’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

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

The California Legislature is moving to put into law a regulation requiring the state’s utilities to obtain a third of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020. But how did California’s three big investor-owned utilities do in meeting a previous mandate to secure 20 percent of their electricity supplies from carbon-free sources by the end of 2010?

Close, but not quite. Overall, the three utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric — are getting 18 percent of their electricity from wind farms, solar power plants, geothermal, and biomass facilities, according to a new report from the California Public Utilities Commission.

Southern California Edison fell just short with 19.4 percent of its power coming from renewable sources. PG&E didn’t do as well but 17.7 percent of its electricity is green. The smallest utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, is the brownest of the bunch, with renewables accounting for only 11.9 percent of its power portfolio.

State regulators estimate that the three utilities will collectively hit the 20 percent target — one of the most aggressive in the United States — by the end of 2012. Of course, they have an even bigger mandate to meet eight years after that.

The good news is that the trajectory looks positive, if the growth in renewable energy generation in recent years is any guide. For instance, the percentage of green electricity in PG&E’s portfolio jumped from 14.4 in 2009 to 17.7 in 2010 while Southern California Edison increased its percentage of renewable energy by two points in 2010.

Hitting the so-called RPS — renewable portfolio standard — admittedly is a tricky business. A review of more than 200 renewable energy projects the utilities have signed shows that many have come online, some have cratered, and others are in limbo as environmentalist and developers face off over the impact of big solar power plants on desert flora and fauna.

There have also been big changes in renewable energy technology in recent years. The price of photovoltaic modules has plummeted over the past two years and utilities have been recently signing deals to buy electricity from photovoltaic farms at a pell-mell pace.

Still, expect stricter scrutiny of these deals as the 2020 deadline approaches, pressure mounts to make good on the 2010 mandate, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s new appointees to the public utilities commission weigh in.

Of the hundreds of renewable energy contacts the utilities have submitted for approval, only two have been rejected — a wave energy deal and a wind project.

Meanwhile, regulators list a project to transmit 200 megawatts of electricity to PG&E from an orbiting space-based solar farm as “on schedule.”

Beam me down, Scotty.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about how the nascent solar thermal boom in California’s Mojave Desert is being derailed by lawsuits from environmental, union and Native American groups:

SAN FRANCISCO — Just weeks after regulators approved the last of nine multibillion-dollar solar thermal power plants to be built in the Southern California desert, a storm of lawsuits and the resurgence of an older solar technology are clouding the future of the nascent industry.

The litigation, which seeks to block construction of five of the solar thermal projects, underscores the growing risks of building large-scale renewable energy plants in environmentally delicate areas. On Jan. 25, for instance, Solar Millennium withdrew its 16-month-old license application for a 250-megawatt solar station called Ridgecrest, citing regulators’ concerns over the project’s impact on the Mohave ground squirrel.

At peak output, the five licensed solar thermal projects being challenged would power more than two million homes, create thousands of construction jobs and help the state meet aggressive renewable energy mandates. The projects are backed by California’s biggest utilities, top state officials and the Obama administration.

But conservation, labor and American Indian groups are challenging the projects on environmental grounds. The lawsuits, coupled with a broad plunge in prices for energy from competing power sources, threaten the ability of developers to secure expiring federal loan guarantees and private financing to establish the projects. Only one developer so far, BrightSource Energy, has obtained a loan guarantee and begun construction.

Like so many of this state’s troubles, the industry’s problems are rooted in real estate.

After President George W. Bush ordered public lands to be opened to renewable energy development and California passed a law in 2006 to reduce carbon emissions, scores of developers staked lease claims on nearly a million acres of Mojave Desert land. The government-owned land offered affordable, wide-open spaces and the abundant sunshine needed by solar thermal plants, which use huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

But many of the areas planned for solar development — including the five projects being challenged — are in fragile landscapes and are home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other protected flora and fauna. The government sped through some of the required environmental reviews, and opponents are challenging those reviews as inadequate.

“There’s no good reason to go into these pristine wilderness areas and build huge solar farms, and less reason for the taxpayers to be subsidizing it,” said Cory J. Briggs, a lawyer representing an American Indian group that has sued the United States Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to stop five of the solar thermal plants. “The impacts to Native American culture and the environment are extraordinary.”

The risk that the suits will succeed in blocking construction could make it more difficult for the builders to get federal loan guarantees or attract private financing.

Officials with the Loan Programs Office of the United States Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment. However, department guidelines classify litigation risk as a significant factor to be considered when qualifying renewable energy projects for a loan guarantee.

Brett Prior, a solar analyst with the GTM Research firm, said commercial lenders also viewed the suits as a negative. “In general, there are more projects chasing project finance than there are funds available, so the investment banks can be selective when deciding which projects to support,” he said. “Projects with lawsuits pending will likely move to the back of the queue.”

The conflict over the California projects has already accelerated a shakeout among competing solar technologies.

Tessera Solar announced last week that it had sold its 709-megawatt Imperial Valley solar dish project, which had become the target of two lawsuits. The buyer, AES Solar, develops power plants using photovoltaic panels like those found on residential rooftops. The move follows Tessera’s sale of its 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant in late December, a week after the company lost its longstanding contract with a utility. Calico is the subject of three lawsuits, and the project’s new owner, a New York firm called K Road Power, said it planned to abandon most of the Tessera solar dishes and instead use photovoltaic panels.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: SolarCity

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

California solar companies are continuing their eastward expansion, with Silicon Valley’s SolarCity on Wednesday acquiring the residential operations of one of the East Coast biggest solar installers, groSolar.

With the acquisition, SolarCity, California’s largest residential solar installer, will move into Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. SolarCity is on something of a spending spree  — in January, the company bought Clean Currents Solar, a Washington, D.C., solar installer, and expanded its operations to the nation’s capital and Maryland.

Meanwhile, Sungevity, an Oakland, Calif., solar installer, raised $15 million from investors in December to expand into six Northeastern states.

“What I see happening in this market is that in order for the solar industry to survive without subsidies, we have to get to economies of scale and build a trusted brand,” Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s chief executive, said in an interview. “I see consolidation continuing with those companies that get economies of scale offering more services.”

Citing California state figures, Rive said the number of solar installers in the Golden State had fallen from 525 in 2007 to 250 by the end of 2010, even as the residential solar market grew by 40 percent a year.

“Most of them just went out of the solar business,” says Rive. “A lot of people who got into solar were electricians, roofers, and the like. They realized it’s a very difficult business, and without scale it’s not competitive.”

The question, of course, is whether California solar companies will find the same success in the not-so-sunny Northeast as they navigate different local incentives for solar and a region that is less culturally green than their home state.

The California market, after all, is a monster: home to nearly 40 million people and a state policy to subsidize a million solar roofs. Not to mention a mandate requiring utilities to obtain a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 — a policy that is translating into contracts for thousands of megawatts of photovoltaic power.

In some ways, the East Coast market is terra incognita, as no state matches the intensive solar data gathering of California. For instance, SolarCity thinks groSolar is the Northeast’s largest solar installer, based on its 2,500 customers, but doesn’t know for sure.

“I think the East Coast market is the perfect market,” says Rive. “There’s some logistical challenges — there’s more trees and an older housing stock. From a cultural point of view, I think they’d very much like to see the savings and have the benefit of using clean power.”

But the biggest challenge is political, as solar incentives in the Northeast have waxed and waned with over the years.

“When you go into any new state, the biggest pitfall is the volatility in policy,” says Rive.

Still, Rive and his California competitors believe their experience toughing it out in the United States’ biggest solar market gives them a leg up as they head East.

“California is an incredibly competitive market, so it teaches you to be fairly nimble and to keep your product offerings sharp,” Rive says. “As you go into other markets, that learning can be applied.”

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

Southern California Edison on Wednesday announced another big photovoltaic power plant deal, this time to buy electricity from a 250-megawatt solar farm to be built by First Solar.

Add that contract to 831 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic power purchase agreements the Los Angeles utility signed with SunPower and Fotowatio in January, and you’re talking some serious solar — more than a gigawatt. At peak output, that’s the equivalent capacity of a big nuclear power plant. I wouldn’t be surprised to see SoCal Edison execs tooling around town with “I ♥ PV” bumper stickers on their Chevrolet Volts and Nissan Leafs.

(And before you all hit the comment key, we know that a nuclear power plant generates electricity 24/7 while a solar farm only produces power when the sun shines.)

“First Solar’s industry-leading technology makes solar PV an excellent option for clean, emission-free power we can deliver to our customers,” Marc Ulrich, the utility’s vice president for renewable and alternative power, said in a statement. “When we get projects of this magnitude, we make great progress toward our renewable energy goals.”

First Solar’s Silver State South project won’t be built in California, but in neighboring Nevada, as its name implies. Like another First Solar power plant project in Nevada, the 50-megawatt Silver State North solar farm, Silver State South is planned for federal land in the Mojave Desert.

The United States Interior Department last October signed off on a lease for the Silver State North power plant, but the 250-megawatt project for Southern California Edison is still undergoing environmental review.

First Solar spokesman Alan Bernheimer told me Tuesday that the company hopes to secure a lease for 2,500 acres of desert land near the casino border town of Primm by the end of 2011. (The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on its website said it expects to issue a decision on Silver State South in 2012.)

According to Southern California Edison, Silver State South is set to begin producing electricity in early 2014 and will be fully built out by May 2017.

There are some obstacles to overcome, however. The project depends on the construction of a major transmission line proposed by Southern California Edison.

And it would be built adjacent to an area that some environmentalists consider key habitat for the imperiled desert tortoise and other fauna and flora. Last month, a 370-megawatt solar thermal power plant under construction by BrightSource Energy a few miles away became the subject of a lawsuit filed by Western Watersheds Projects. The suit contends the Interior Department and BLM officials failed to properly consider the environmental impact of the BrightSource project on the desert tortoise and other wildlife.

Regardless of the outcome of the Silver State South power plant, First Solar has plenty of other photovoltaic farms in the pipeline. According to Bernheimer, the company has signed contracts for 2,000 megawatts’ worth of big solar projects.

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

More good news on the renewable energy front Monday: The cost of onshore wind power has dropped to record lows, and in some regions is competitive with electricity generated by coal-fired plants, according to a survey by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a market research firm.

“The latest edition of our Wind Turbine Price Index shows wind continuing to become a competitive source of large-scale power,” Michael Liebreich, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s chief executive, said in a statement.

“For the past few years, wind turbine costs went up due to rising demand around the world and the increasing price of steel,” he added. “Behind the scenes, wind manufacturers were reducing their costs, and now we are seeing just how cheap wind energy can be when overcapacity in the supply chain works its way through to developers.”

Driving the trend are falling prices for wind turbines, which have dropped to their lowest level since 2005, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Bloomberg said it based its analysis on a review of wind turbine contracts provided by 28 turbine buyers in 28 markets across the world. Those contacts represent nearly 7,000 megawatts’ worth of turbines.

Of course, that’s not necessarily good news for turbine manufacturers in the short term. But it makes wind energy more competitive over the long run. Over the past year the industry in the United States, for instance, has seen the wind taken out of its sails as demand has fallen due to the economy and natural gas prices have plummeted.

According to Bloomberg, contracts signed in late 2010 for turbines to be delivered in the first half of this year this year fell 7 percent from 2009 to an average of $1.33 million a megawatt. That’s a 19 percent decline since 2007.

In some regions of Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, and the United States, the cost of electricity generated by wind farms is on par with coal-fired power, the report said. In those areas, the cost of wind-generated electricity is $68 per megawatt-hour compared to $67 a megawatt-hour for coal power and $56 per megawatt-hour for natural gas.

Meanwhile on Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the federal government would grant $50.5 million over five years to spur offshore wind farm developments on the East Coast.

The money will go toward developing offshore wind technology and removing market barrier to building coastal wind farms.

 

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

Earlier this week, I wrote about the green evolution in California regarding electric cars. Well, when it comes to solar energy, it’s starting to look more like a revolution.

This week, utility Southern California Edison asked regulators to approve 20-year contracts to buy 250 megawatts of electricity from 20 small-scale photovoltaic farms.

Nothing especially newsworthy about that until you start reading through the document submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission (hat tip to Adam Browning of the Vote Solar Initiative). Turns out that in response to its request for bids, Southern California Edison received offers in excess of 2,500 megawatts.

In other words, there’s a whole lotta solar companies out there eager to generate carbon-free electricity.

And willing to do it relatively cheaply. Southern California Edison noted in its submission letter that the 20 projects — which will generate between 5 and 20 megawatts — will produce electricity at a cost below what utility industry wonks call the “market price referent.” The MPR, as they call it, represents the levelized cost over 20 years of a combined cycle gas turbine like those typically found in natural gas power plants in the Golden State.

So in plain English, the developers of these solar farms have told the utility that they can produce electricity cheaper than a fossil fuel power plant.

The increasing competitiveness of photovoltaic power is a reflection of the steep drop in solar modules prices in recent years, thanks in large part to the rapid expansion of manufacturing capacity by Chinese solar companies. But solar modules themselves typically represent just half the cost of a project, so the growing competitiveness of solar energy probably also is due to developers’ increased efficiency at building power plants and cutting other costs.

It was notable that a homegrown technology, concentrating photovoltaics, is among those 20 contracts that came in below the market price referent. Amonix, a Southern California company, will supply the technology for four power plants. The company’s concentrating photovoltaics panels boost electricity production by using plastic lens to focus sunlight on highly efficient solar cells.

The conventional wisdom until recently was the technology was still just too expensive to be commercialized. Guess not.

As Vote Solar’s blog put it, “That’s a lot of solar, at a good price.”

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 30, 2010.

A subsidiary of NRG Energy on Tuesday said it will invest up to $450 million in a 250-megawatt photovoltaic power plant to be built by Silicon Valley’s SunPower on the central California coast.

The New Jersey-based power provider, which operates a fleet of fossil fuel and nuclear plants, has emerged as significant investor in solar projects.

In October, NRG agreed to invest $300 million in BrightSource Energy’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah solar thermal power plant now under construction in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. The company has also struck a partnership with eSolar, a Pasadena, Calif., startup, to build solar power plants in the desert Southwest. And NRG owns a 20-megawatt photovoltaic farm in Blythe, Calif., and has other solar projects under development in Arizona, California and New Mexico.

In the deal with SunPower, NRG Solar will take ownership of the California Valley Solar Ranch in San Luis Obispo County and responsibility for financing the project. SunPower said on Tuesday that it is seeking a federal loan guarantee to build the solar farm and has received a draft term sheet from the United States Department of Energy.

SunPower, a solar power plant developer and one of the U.S.’ largest manufacturers of photovoltaic modules, will build and operate the San Luis Obispo project. The company, based in San Jose, Calif., has a 25-year contract to sell the electricity generated by California Valley Solar Ranch to utility PG&E. Construction is set to begin next year and when the project is completed in 2013 it will produce enough electricity to power about 100,000 homes, according to the company.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 26, 2010.

In an effort that could help avoid conflicts between wind energy developers and environmentalists, the United States Department of the Interior this week released a map that identifies breeding densities of the imperiled sage-grouse in 11 Western states.

The chicken-sized bird with a white breast and a plumage of brown, black and white feathers is dependent on a sage-brush habitat that also is favored by developers of wind farms in high-wind areas of the Western United States.

“This map and initiative will help advance our collaborative efforts with states and stakeholders to develop smart policy to enhance the sustainability of our sage-grouse populations,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.  “The final map will give Interior a strong foundation to identify land uses that do not compromise areas that are so critical to the greater sage-grouse.”

Development of all kinds has taken a toll on the ground-dwelling sage-grouse and environmental groups petitioned the federal government to put the bird on the endangered species list. In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that protection of the sage-grouse was warranted but that the bird would not be listed due to the need to protect other species first.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In the New York Times on Wednesday, I follow up my story on solar power plants and desert tortoises:

In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about how the fortunes of big solar power plants in the desert Southwest can hinge on the way developers handle imperiled wildlife in the path of their projects.

The protected desert tortoise has become the totemic animal for environmentalists fighting to ensure that the huge solar farms don’t eliminate essential habitat for the long-lived reptile and other wildlife, like the bighorn sheep and flat-tailed horned lizard.

The tortoise has been in decline for decades, and the rampant changing of the desert — including the development of casinos, strip malls and subdivisions, and designation of off-road recreational vehicle areas — took its toll long before construction began late last month on the Ivanpah solar power plant, the first large-scale solar thermal project to be break ground in the United States in 20 years.

Still, the solar farms will industrialize the desert on an unparalleled scale. The seven projects already licensed in California will cover 42 square miles with immense mirror arrays.

But as much as some biologists fear that the need to generate electricity without carbon dioxide emissions will harm the desert tortoise, the projects offer an opportunity for intensive research on the critter. That’s because regulations require solar developers to monitor tortoises for three years after they are relocated.

“Certainly the monitoring of the translocated desert tortoises will yield useful research information on the ability of desert tortoises to adapt to new surroundings,” Larry LaPré, a wildlife biologist with the United States Bureau of Land Management, said in an e-mail.

Such data is critical. While environmental regulations and efforts by developers like BrightSource Energy, the builder of the Ivanpah project in Southern California, are tailored to remove the tortoise from harm’s way during construction, the survival of the animals depends on how well they adjust to their new homes.

The track record on tortoise relocations is not encouraging. In 2008, more than 700 tortoises were moved from the Fort Irwin military installation in Southern California so the base could expand. Nearly half the relocated tortoises died within two years from, among other things, predation by coyotes and ravens, according to state records.

Biologists I met recently at the Ivanpah power plant site were far more optimistic about the relocation of 23 tortoises found in the project’s first phase.

“The tortoises at Fort Irwin were moved a lot further than these, and there also was a big problem with predators there,” Peter Woodman, a biologist who worked on the military project, explained as he stood by a holding pen where the Ivanpah tortoises will live until they are moved next spring.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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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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