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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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solara
Images: BrightSource Energy

A ray of sunshine amid the economic gloom: While some solar companies struggle through the downturn, BrightSource Energy on Wednesday morning announced the world’s largest solar energy deal to date – a 20-year contract to supply utility Southern California Edison with 1,300 megawatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity.

That’s more than twice the size of the previous world’s-biggest-solar-deal, a 553-megawatt power purchase agreement in 2007 between California utility PG&E and Israel’s Solel. BrightSource itself last year inked a deal to provide PG&E (PCG) with 500-megawatts of solar electricity with an option for 400 megawatts more.

“This proves the energy industry is recognizing the role solar thermal will play as we de-carbonize our energy supply,”  BrightSource CEO John Woolard said Wednesday at a press conference.  “We believe now more than ever the time is right for large-scale solar thermal.”

solarhOakland-based BrightSource will build seven solar power plants for Southern California Edison (EIX) using its “power tower” technology. Thousands of sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats focus the sun’s rays on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a tower. The intense heat creates steam which drives a turbine to generate electricity. BrightSource has built a prototype power plant in Israel.

BrightSource has raised more than $160 million from a blue-chip group of investors that includes Google (GOOG), Morgan Stanley (MS) and VantagePoint Venture Partners as well as a clutch of oil giants – Chevron (CVX), BP (BP) and Norway’s StatoilHydro.

If all the solar power plants are built, BrightSource’s deal with Southern California Edison will generate enough electricity to power about 845,000 homes. The agreement is a vote of confidence in the solar industry at a time when the financial crisis has forced BrightSource rivals like OptiSolar to lay off workers while Ausra retools its strategy to focus on supplying solar thermal technology to power plant developers rather than building projects itself.

Given the economic collapse, why are these massive megawatt deals still being done? First, California utilities are under tight deadlines to ratchet up the amount of electricity they obtain from renewable sources – 20% by the end of 2010 and 33% by 2020. Second, it costs nothing to sign a contract – no money has yet changed hands, and won’t unless the plants are built and begin producing electricity.

In fact, not a kilowatt of juice has been generated from the more than 5,000 megawatts of Big Solar contracts signed over the past four years by California’s three investor owned utilities (the third being San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) ).  Still, a long-term utility contract is key for a startup like BrightSource to obtain the billions in financing required to build large-scale solar power plants. The terms of utility contracts – such as the cost of the solar electricity produced – are closely held secrets but are worth billions, if a 2008 power purchase agreement between Spanish solar company Abengoa and utility Arizona Public Service is any guide.

A significant hurdle for BrightSource – and many other solar developers – is the expansion of the transmission grid to connect remote power plants to cities. BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs says the company has 4,200 megawatts of solar power plant projects under development.

The Southern California Edison deal is something of a homecoming for American-Israeli solar pioneer Arnold Goldman, BrightSource’s founder and chairman. In the 1980s, during the first solar boom, his Luz International built nine solar power plants in the Mojave. Those plants, most are now operated by FPL (FPL), continue to provide electricity to Edison.

The first BrightSource solar farm for Edison is expected to go online in early 2013. It’s a 100 megawatt power plant part of BrightSource’s Ivanpah complex to be built on federal land on the California-Nevada border in the Mojave Desert. That plant is currently wending its way through a complex state and federal licensing process.

Just how complex was illustrated by a meeting Green Wombat attended Tuesday in Sacramento, where a roomful of state and federal officials spent hours discussing the environmental impact of a 750-megawatt solar power plant to be built by Phoenix’s Stirling Energy Systems for San Diego Gas & Electric that would plant 30,000 solar dishes in the desert. A second Stirling solar farm will be built for Southern California Edision. When the deals were announced in 2005, they were the world’s largest at the time.

PG&E chief executive Peter Darbee recently said his utility will begin directly investing in solar power projects. On Wednesday, Southern California Edison renewable energy executive Stuart Hemphill said Edison would consider requests from solar power developers to take ownership stakes in their projects but prefers to sign power purchase agreements.

“We do see solar as the large untapped resource, particularly in Southern California,” said Hemphill.

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sunrise_powerlink_031506

Over the weekend The New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald had a sobering story on the not-inconsiderable challenges facing efforts to expand and upgrade the United States’ power grid to tap renewable energy from wind farms and solar power plants. Among them: Opposition to new high-voltage power lines from landowners and environmentalists, a Byzantine permitting process and fights over who pays the costs of transmission projects that span state lines.

Here in California, the ongoing controversy over the Sunrise Powerlink project is a case study in just how difficult it will be to build the infrastructure to transmit electricity from dozens of solar power plants planned for the Mojave Desert. Among the big companies looking to cash in on the solar land rush: Goldman Sachs (GS), Chevron (CVX) and FPL (FPL)

Utility San Diego Gas & Electric first proposed the $1.3 billion, 150-mile Sunrise Powerlink in 2005 to connect the coastal metropolis with remote solar power stations and wind farms in eastern San Diego County and the Imperial Valley. For instance, SDG&E’s contract to buy up to 900 megawatts of solar electricity from massive solar farms to be built by Stirling Energy Systems is dependent on the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink. Like California’s other big investor-owned utilities – PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) – SDG&E, a unit of energy giant Sempra (SRE), is racing the clock to meet a state mandate to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020.

But Sunrise sparked opposition from the get-go as the utility proposed routing part of the transmission project through a pristine wilderness area of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  The prospect of 150-foot-tall transmission towers marching through critical habitat for desert tortoises and other protected wildlife galvanized environmentalists well-versed in the arcane arts of regulatory warfare.

Opponents also painted the project as a Trojan horse to bring in cheap coal-fired power from Mexico. (Wald makes a similar point in his Times‘ piece – the same high-voltage lines designed to transmit green electricity from wind farms can also be used to send cheap carbon-intensive coal-fired electricity across the country.) That argument subsequently lost currency when regulators, citing California’s landmark global warming law, barred utilities from signing long-term contracts for out-of-state coal power.

After more than three years of hearings and procedural skirmishes culminating in an 11,000-page environmental impact report, a PUC administrative law judge last October issued a 265-page decision all but killing the project on environmental grounds. Whether SDG&E thought that green energy and climate change concerns would trump worries over wildlife and wilderness, it was clear that trying to build an industrial project through a state park was a costly mistake.

Then in December, after California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order to streamline and prioritize the licensing of renewable energy projects, the utilities commission’s board revived Sunrise Powerlink, approving a different route for the transmission lines that avoids Anza-Borrego.

But the fight is far from over. With the cost of the project now approaching $2 billion, late last month the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group, filed a suit in the California Supreme Court challenging the utilties commission’s approval of Sunrise Powerlink.

Safe to say, the battle will drag on for some time to come, giving new meaning to the term “stranded assets” for some would-be Big Solar developers.

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csi-report

The other day I ran into Danny Kennedy, president of solar installation company Sungevity, on the playground as we were picking up our kids at Malcolm X Elementary (we live in Berkeley). I had spent the week chronicling layoffs at various solar and wind companies so it was with a bit of trepidation that Green Wombat asked Danny how business was going at at Sungevity.  “Great,” he replied as I quizzed him about the impact of the recession. “We’re as busy as ever.”

Apparently so. A report released Wednesday by the California Public Utilities Commission shows that residential and commercial rooftop solar installations in the Golden State more than doubled in 2008 from the previous year to 158 megawatts. What’s more, a record-breaking number of applications to participate in California’s $3 billion solar rebate program were filed in December as the drumbeat of bad economic news grew deafening and the state’s unemployment rate hit 9%.

Are Californians being crazily contrarian? While one would think that a $30,000 solar array would be one of those luxuries most people would put on the back burner in bad times, there are some solid economic reasons for the surge. First, rebates for solar systems under the California Solar Initiative get less lucrative in 2009 as incentives fall as the amount of installed solar rises.  Then in October Congress lifted the $2,000 cap on the federal tax credit on solar arrays, allowing homeowners and businesses to take a 30% tax credit on systems installed after Dec. 31.  Add in the state rebate and the cost of a solar system in California suddenly fell by half.

“The surge in applications occurring in the fourth quarter of 2008 is particularly noteworthy given the slowdown in the economy that occurred during the same time period,” the report’s authors noted. “In addition to environmental benefits such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, it appears that solar energy is benefiting California by serving as an economic bright spot in the economy.”

And therein lies some lessons as the U.S. Congress debates how to promote green jobs. Two years into the California Solar Initiative, the taxpayers’ investment of $775 million in solar rebates has yielded $5 billion in private investment in solar projects and rapidly expanded the state’s renewable energy industry, according to the report. That’s helped create strong solar companies like solar cell maker SunPower (SPWRA) and markets for thin-film solar companies such as First Solar (FSLR). The decade-long program is on track to achieve its target of 3,000 megawatts of rooftop solar and in the first two years of the program more solar has been installed in California than in the previous 25 years.

While California regulators expect the pace to continue in 2009, the big unknown is how many homeowners and business owners will drop out of the program and cancel their applications if the economy continues to deteriorate rapidly this year. The current dropout rate is 15%, according to the report.

“We are hopeful that many of those pending projects will move forward,” Molly Tirpak Sterkel, who oversees the California Solar Initiative for the utilities commission, told Green Wombat. “We’re also cognizant of the economy and economic forces that may pose a threat to those installations.”

Demand for solar is far stronger in Northern California than in sunny SoCal. Northern California utility PG&E’s (PCG) customers have installed more than twice the megawatts of solar than Southern California Edison (EIX) customers. And the report notes that while applications for commercial arrays in PG&E’s territory rose 71% between April and December 2008, they fell 23% in Southern California Edison’s area. San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), which covers a much smaller service area, saw applications triple for residential solar arrays.

Sterkel says it is unclear why Northern Californians are going solar at a much faster rate than their southern counterpart, but it may be due to differences in electricity pricing and more mature solar markets in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area. “There’s just that many more solar companies with experience, installations and sales channels, ” she says.

Solar panels seem to be sprouting from Bay Area rooftops like California poppies after a late winter rain. In Berkeley, the city has launched a program that pays for residential and business solar arrays upfront and let owners pay the cost back over 20 years through an annual assessment on their property taxes.

Which also may explain why I seem to be seeing more of those Sungevity signs around town.

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photo: Ausra

When Green Wombat sat down for a chat with Ausra founder David Mills back in September 2007, he allowed that it was not unreasonable to expect the Silicon Valley solar startup to soon be building several massive megawatt solar power plants a year. The optimism was not unwarranted. After all, in the space of 12 months Ausra had relocated from Sydney to Palo Alto, raised $40 million from A-list venture capitalists and was about to ink a deal with utility PG&E for a 177-megawatt  solar power project.

That was then. This month Ausra laid off 10% of its 108 employees amid a move to stop building Big Solar projects – for now – to focus on providing its solar thermal technology to other power plant developers and to industries that use steam. (Ausra’s compact linear fresnel reflector technology deploys flat mirrors that sit low to the ground and concentrate sunlight on water-filled pipes that hang over the mirrors. The superheated water creates steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine.)

“I think our competitors will figure this out sooner or later but nobody’s going from a five-megawatt project to a 500-megawatt project. No one’s going to finance that,” Ausra CEO Bob Fishman told Green Wombat. “If you look at the amount of money it takes to be involved in the project development business, that’s not something a startup can do.”

At least any time soon. Ausra last year opened a robotic factory in Las Vegas to make mirror arrays and other components for the many power plant projects it had on the drawing boards. Just three months ago the company flipped the switch on its five-megawatt Kimberlina demonstration power plant outside Bakersfield. But as the credit crunch hit, financing for billion-dollar solar power projects evaporated. Then in October, Congress passed legislation allowing utilities like PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) to claim a 30% investment tax credit for solar projects. As the only well-capitalized institutions left standing in the energy game, utilities are stepping forward as investors.

PG&E CEO Peter Darbee says he’s prepared to make direct investments in solar power plants – projects the utility needs to comply with a California mandate to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020. Under pressure to meet those targets, California utilities have signed more than four gigawatts worth of power purchase agreements with solar power plant startups like BrightSource Energy, Solel, Stirling Energy Systems and eSolar. Utilities also have begun signing deals for electricity produced by smaller scale photovoltaic power plants built by companies like First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWRA).

Fishman said Ausra will complete the 177-megawatt Carrizo Energy Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast to supply electricity to PG&E. “If Peter Darbee wants to own Carrizo rather than buy the electricity, we’re willing to do it. It makes sense,” he says.

Ausra will also will complete a second big solar power plant planned for Arizona. But the company has quietly let drop a Florida project for utility FPL (FPL) and is negotiating to offload lease claims it filed on federal land in Arizona and Nevada for solar power plants during the solar land rush.

“Other projects in the pipeline we’ll be selling to utilities or developers for a modest amount of cash with a commitment that those developers must use our technology,” says Fishman.

Fishman notes that the cost of licensing a solar power plant can be $5 million to $10 million a year – and in California it’s a multi-year process – so Ausra will realize some immediate savings by morphing into a technology provider.

Customers for Ausra’s technology include oil companies that could inject solar-generated steam in oil wells to enhance recovery of thick petroleum as well as food processing plants and other heavy users of steam. Fishman just returned from a trip to the Middle East where he says he held talks in Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai about using Ausra’s technology for oil recovery and desalinization.

Going forward, he says Ausra’s focus will be on medium-sized power plants. “Maybe next year we’ll do four projects of 50 megawatts a year. It’s a walk before you run situation,” says Fishman. “The financial customers and financial community are going to insist we do medium scale before we do large scale. We’ll still want to do very large projects but given the project finance market, it’ll be a few years from now.”

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