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Archive for the ‘San Diego Gas & Electric’ 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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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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photo: Nissan

This post first appeared on Grist.

With the first mass-market electric cars set to hit California roads later this year, the state’s utilities have been working to ensure that early adopters – who tend to be clustered in places like Berkeley and Santa Monica – don’t overload neighborhood transformers and trigger local blackouts.

One way to do that is to encourage drivers not to plug in all at the same time, say when they arrive home from work and also crank up the air conditioning, is to set variable electricity rates that reward those who wait to charge until demand falls late at night or the wee hours of the morning.

What is unknown is whether such rates will actually change anyone’s behavior.

We’re about to find out. On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a pilot project proposed by San Diego Gas & Electric to set variable rates for electric car charging.

“This information is critically important as we contemplate a future with widespread electric vehicle usage, given the additional electricity demand these vehicles create and the associated impacts on the grid,” Michael Peevey, the utilities commission president, said in a statement.

The project, which kicks off in January, will accompany the roll out of 1,000 Nissan Leaf electric cars in the San Diego area and the installation of home charging stations for each driver. Some 1,500 public charging stations will also be installed as well as 50 fast chargers that allow the cars’ batteries to be topped off in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

The San Diego effort is part of program backed by the United States Department of Energy called the EV Project that will put 5,700 Leafs and 2,600 Chevrolet Volts in garages in five states along with 14,650 charging stations and 310 fast chargers.

Under the plan greenlighted by California regulators on Thursday, San Diego Gas & Electric will bill Nissan Leaf drivers a range of rates, from a low of 7 cents a kilowatt/hour for summer “super off peak” charging to a high of 38 cents a kilowatt/hour during peak summer demand.

So will someone who has forked over $109,000 for a Tesla Roadster care about saving 31 cents a kilowatt hour? Probably not. What about the middle-of-the-road buyer of a $20,000 (after tax incentives) Nissan Leaf?

Maybe. But survey data that a California utility executive recently shared with me was not encouraging. Polling of likely electric car buyers showed that they were not particularly charged up about the prospect of saving money by delaying their EV gratification.

Another solution is smart charging. Drivers plug in when they get home but the charger communicates with the power grid to determine the optimal time to flip the switch.

That requires a smart grid and the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday also approved a comprehensive plan to digitalize the state’s power system.

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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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betterplaceplug

photo: Better Place

With electric cars months away from hitting the road, the California Public Utilities Commission has begun the complex task of establishing a regulatory framework for the state’s emerging electric vehicle infrastructure. The biggest fight is likely to be over whether to regulate companies like Better Place, which plans to build an electric car charging network in the state. As I write in The New York Times on Monday:

With electric cars set to hit the mass market next year, a skirmish is breaking out in California over who will control the state’s electric vehicle infrastructure.

The California Public Utilities Commission will write the rules of the electric road and is just starting to grapple with the complex regulatory issues surrounding the integration of battery-powered cars into the state’s electrical grid.

One of the biggest questions is whether to regulate Better Place, Coulomb Technologies and other companies that plan to sell electricity to drivers through a network of battery charging stations.

California’s three big investor-owned utilities have split over the issue.

“The commission should establish its authority to regulate third-party providers of electricity for electric vehicles,” Christopher Warner, an attorney for Pacific Gas & Electric, wrote in a filing with the utilities commission. “Managing the increased electricity consumption and load attributable to electric vehicles in order to avoid adverse impacts on the safety and reliability of the electric grid may be one of the most difficult management challenges that electric utilities will face.”

Southern California Edison, meanwhile, urged the commission to move cautiously, calibrating any regulation to the specific business models of the companies.

San Diego Gas & Electric said the commission does not have the right to regulate companies like Better Place.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Stirling SunCatcher

photo: Tessera Solar

Another day, another Big Solar deal.

Tessera Solar on Wednesday said it will build a 1.5 megawatt Stirling solar dish power plant outside Phoenix to supply electricity to utility Salt River Project.

The announcement follows Tuesday’s spate of solar power plant deals. As I wrote in The New York Times, utility Southern California Edison (EIX) agreed to buy 550 megwatts of solar electricity that will be generated by two massive thin-film photovoltaic power plants to be built by First Solar (FSLR). Later in the day on Tuesday, First Solar said that it had struck a deal with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to supply 55 megawatts from a PV farm to be constructed in Southern California’s Imperial Valley.

Tessera Solar is the development arm for Stirling Energy Systems, the maker of the SunCatcher solar dish. The company is developing two huge California projects — a 850-megawatt, 34,000-dish solar farm to be built on 8,230 acres to supply power to Southern California Edison and a 750-megawatt power plant complex for San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE).

The 60-dish Salt River Project solar farm is but a fraction of the California solar farms’ size but will serve as a demonstration project for Tessera’s technology.

Most notable, given the years-long licensing process for big solar power projects in places like California, Tessera plans to break ground next month and bring what it calls the Maricopa Solar plant online in January 2010.

Tessera will lease the project site from Salt River Project and sell the electricity to the utility under a 10-year power purchase agreement.

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Stirling SunCatcher

photo: Tessera Solar

When it comes to renewable energy, Texas has been all about Big Wind. But this week the Lone Star State took on its first Big Solar project when San Antonio utility CPS Energy signed a 27-megawatt deal with Tessera Solar.

Houston-based Tessera is the solar farm developer for Stirling Energy Systems, which makes a Stirling solar dish. Resembling a giant mirrored satellite receiver, the 25-kilowatt solar dish focuses the sun’s rays on a Stirling engine, heating hydrogen gas to drive pistons that generate electricity. (Last year Irish green energy firm NTR pumped $100 million into Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Stirling Energy Systems and created Tessera to develop solar power plants using the Stirling dish, called the SunCatcher.

Stirling Energy Systems previously signed deals with Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) to supply up to 1,750 megawatts of electricity from some 70,000 solar dishes to be planted in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

Other solar developers privately have cast doubt on Stirling’s ability to make good on those contracts, arguing the SunCatcher is just too expensive and complex to compete against solar thermal technologies that rely on mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

But earlier this week, Stirling unveiled the latest generation of the SunCatcher at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. The new SunCatcher has shed 5,000 pounds and its Stirling hydrogen engine contains 60% fewer parts than the previous version, according to the company.

The SunCatcher also uses a fraction of the water consumed by competing solar thermal technologies being developed by startups like BrightSource Energy and Ausra — no small deal in the desert. Tessera solar farms also can be built in modules, meaning that when a 1.5 megawatt pod of 60 SunCatchers is installed it can immediately begin generating electricity — and cash.

California utility PG&E also went modular Thursday when it signed a 92-megawatt deal with New Jersey’s NRG (NRG) for electricity to be generated by a Southern California solar power plant using eSolar’s technology. Google-backed (GOOG) eSolar’s builds its solar power tower plants in 46-megawatt modules. The power plants take up much less land than competing solar thermal technologies, thanks to eSolar’s use of sophisticated software to control small mirrors that are packed close together.

NRG earlier this month signed a deal to build a 92-megawatt eSolar-powered solar farm in New Mexico near the Texas border.

eSolar CEO Bill Gross says his solar farms will generate electricity cheaper than natural gas-fired power plants, a claim PG&E (PCG) appears to confirm in its submission of the deal to the regulators. (Thanks to Vote Solar for pointing to the document.)

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Top 10 solar utilities

A solar industry trade group on Thursday released its list of the Top 10 solar integrated utilities of 2008 and it will come as no surprise that California’s Big Three utilities took the top three spots.

What is news, and a sign that solar’s reach is extending beyond the Golden State, is that six of the Top 10 solar utilities on the Solar Electric Power Association’s list hail from places like New York and New Jersey.

Still, San Francisco-based PG&E (PCG), which claimed the No. 1 slot, alone connected 84.9 megawatts of photovoltaic solar to the grid in 2008, accounting for 44% of all new solar capacity last year. Southern California Edison (EIX) came in second with 32.4 megawatts and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) took third place with 16 megawatts.

Xcel Energy (XEL) in Colorado was close behind with 14.2 megawatts. After that the numbers take a dive to the single megawatts. Still, utilities from not-so-sunny places like Portland, Ore.  made the list.

Southern California Edison is No. 1 when it comes to total installed solar to date — 441.4 megawatts — due largely to the 354 megawatts of electricity generated by nine solar thermal power plants built in the 1980s that continue to operate in the Mojave Desert. PG&E came in second with 229.5 megawatts connected to the grid so far.

Those numbers should skyrocket in the coming years as the California utilities have signed contracts for more than 3 gigawatts of electricity to be produced by large solar farms. Utilities like Arizona Public Service (PNW) — No. 5 on the list for 2008 — are also beginning to contract for solar electricity to be produced by massive megawatt solar power plants.

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cpuc-rps-report

California quadrupled the amount of renewable energy it installed in 2008 over the previous year, according to a report released Wednesday by the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

The 500 megawatts of green electricity brought online last year represents 60% of all renewable energy generation built since 2002, when California mandated that the state’s investor-owned utilities obtain 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2010. In November, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order raising the Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS, to 33% by 2020.

“Clearly, 2008 was a turning point for the RPS program and contracted projects are beginning to deliver in large numbers,” the California Public Utilities Commission report stated.

The CPUC in 2008 approved projects that would generate 2,812 megawatts of renewable energy for California’s Big Three utilities – PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE). Impressive numbers but the utilities have acknowledged they are unlikely to meet their renewable energy targets by the 2010 deadline because it takes years to get solar and wind projects online and some will inevitably fail. For instance, the financial crisis has raised questions about just how many of the Big Solar power plants the utilities are relying on will actually get built, though the $787 billion stimulus packaged signed into law Tuesday by President Barack Obama has brightened the solar industry’s prospects.

California increasingly is depending on solar energy to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the state’s landmark 2006 global warming law. According to regulators, utilities received 30% more bids for solar power projects in 2008 than in the previous year while wind farm proposals dropped by half and “very few” geothermal tenders were filed.

The fact that utilities received 24,000 megawatts’ worth of renewable energy bids last year (more than enough, if built, to meet the 33% renewable energy target) speaks to the frothy state of the market. But before solar power plants and other green energy projects can go online they face years-long and often contentious environmental reviews, while a lack of transmission lines to bring all this electricity from the desert to coastal cities remains the green elephant in the room.

Meanwhile, regulators are reviewing a policy change that would seem to undercut the state’s goal of encouraging utilities to generate more renewable energy. On March 12 Feb. 20,the California Public Utilities Commission will consider whether to allow utilities to buy so-called tradable renewable energy credits, or TRECs, from other entities  to meet their green electricity mandates. Such credits are associated with the electricity generated by wind farms, solar power plants and other projects and can be bought and sold. In other words, if a utility finds itself falling short of its renewable energy goals – or just doesn’t want to spend the money procuring green power – it could buy TRECs on the open market.

Green Wombat is awaiting a reply from the utilities commission on whether California utilities could purchase TRECs generated by out-of-state projects – which, of course, would do nothing to reduce the state’s own greenhouse gas emissions.  UPDATE: CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper says that utilities will be able to buy out-of-state TRECs as long as they meet California’s eligibility requirements.

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topaz-solar-farm-app

In the green stimulus sweepstakes, big potential winners are companies like Silicon Valley startup OptiSolar.

The solar-cell maker came out of nowhere last year to score a deal with utility PG&E to build the world’s largest photovolaic power plant, a 550-megawatt monster that would cover some 9 1/2 square miles on California’s central coast. OptiSolar subsequently began construction of a factory in Sacramento to produce the thousands of thin-film solar panels needed for the project. Then the economy tanked and as financing dried up, OptiSolar laid off half its workforce – some 300 employees – and halted construction of the Sacramento facility.

With a Colorado solar company executive joining President Barack Obama as he signed the $787 billion stimulus legislation into law Tuesday at a solar-powered museum in Denver, OptiSolar and other renewable energy companies stalled by the financial crisis may see their fortunes revive. The package allows builders of big renewable energy projects to apply for a government cash grant to cover 30% of construction costs in lieu of claiming a 30% investment tax credit. A dearth of investors who finance solar power plants and wind farms in exchange for the tax credits has put in jeopardy green energy projects planned for the desert Southwest and the Great Plains. The cash grant would shave about $300 million off the projected $1 billion price tag for OptiSolar’s Topaz Solar Farm.

The stimulus package also includes $2.3 billion to fund a 30% manufacturing tax credit for equipment used to make components for green energy projects, a provision OptiSolar can tap to help finance its solar cell factories. And the company may be able to take advantage of the legislation’s government loan guarantees for large renewable energy projects.

“It will lower the cost of the factory we’re building in Sacramento and make it easier to attract financing,” OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer told Green Wombat, noting the company’s priority is to complete the facility and begin production of solar panels. “The factory is more than shovel ready – our shovels are hanging on the wall where we put them when we had stop work in November.” (OptiSolar currently manufactures solar modules at its Hayward, Calif., plant.)

Fred Morse, senior adviser to Spanish solar energy giant Abengoa, says the stimulus package puts back on track a $1 billion, 280-megawatt solar thermal power plant the company will build outside Phoenix to produce electricity for utility Arizona Public Service. “With the stimulus bill we’re very confident we’ll be able to finance the project,” says Morse. He says Abengoa expects to use the government loan guarantees to obtain debt financing to fund construction of the project and then apply for the 30% cash refund. “I think the entire industry is very optimistic that these two aspects of the stimulus package, the grants and the temporary loan guarantees, should allow a lot of projects to be built.”

Mark McLanahan, senior vice president of corporate development for MMA Renewable Ventures, agrees. “I expect the government grants to attract new investors,” says McLanahan, whose San Francisco firm finances and owns commercial and utility-scale solar projects.

There are some strings attached, though.

To qualify for the cash grants, developers need to start shoveling dirt by Dec. 31, 2010. That means only a handful of big solar thermal power plants planned for California, for instance, are likely to make it through a complicated two-year licensing process in time to break ground by the deadline. One of those could be the first phase of BrightSource Energy’s 400-megawatt Ivanpah power plant on the California-Nevada border. But BrightSource’s biggest projects, part of a 1,300 megawatt deal signed with Southern California Edison (EIX) last week, won’t start coming online until 2013 at the earliest.

Another Big Solar project, Stirling Energy Systems’ 750-megawatt solar dish farm for San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), will be racing to meet the 2010 deadline. The project is in the middle of a long environmental review by the California Energy Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management which currently is scheduled to stretch into 2010.

SolarReserve CEO Terry Murphy says his Santa Monica-based startup has a couple of solar power plant projects in the works that should be able to take advantage of the stimulus provisions. “The likelihood of us being able to close on a financial deal has increased,” Murphy says.

Solar analyst Nathan Bullard of research firm New Energy Finance expects the stimulus package to prompt a push for large photovoltaic power projects. That’s because in California such solar farms – which essentially take rooftop solar panels and mount them in huge arrays on the ground – do not need approval from the California Energy Commission and can be built relatively quickly.

That’s good news for companies like thin-film solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR), which builds smaller scale photovoltaic power plants, and SunPower (SPWRA), which has a long-term contract with PG&E (PCG) for the electricity generated from a planned 250-megawatt PV solar farm to be built near OptiSolar’s project.

“It’s great for PV because you can definitely can get construction done by the end of 2010,” says Bullard. “It’s also good news for smaller and mid-sized developers who couldn’t access tax-equity financing.”

The catch, however, is that renewable energy companies still must raise money from investors in a credit-crunched market to cover construction costs, as the government doesn’t pay out the cash until 60 days after a solar power plant or wind farm goes online. And as McLanahan points out, the cost of raising capital from private equity investors is typically higher and will add to the cost of renewable energy projects. Those costs will only rise if the government is late in paying out refunds.

MMA Renewable finances large commercial arrays and solar power plants and then sells the electricity under long-term contracts to customers who host the solar systems. The loan guarantee provision of the stimulus legislation will help secure financing from investors skittish that some of MMA Renewable’s customers may default on their agreements, according to McLanahan.

Says Murphy: “The fact that we’re getting iron into the ground and getting things moving helps us.”

The wind industry also stands to gain from the stimulus package through a three-year extension of the production tax credit for generating renewable electricity as well as the government cash grants and manufacturing tax credit. Despite a record year for wind farm construction in 2008, projects have come to a standstill in recent months as the financial crisis froze development and forced the European-dominated industry to lay off workers.

“I think it’s good down payment on what needs to happen,” says Doug Pertz, CEO of Clipper Windpower, one of two U.S. wind turbine makers. “A lot more needs to be done but I think this will start to bring a lot of people back into the marketplace.”

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