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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: 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.

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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In The New York Times on Friday, I write about how Suntech has become the first Chinese solar company to win a major U.S. power plant contract:

Suntech, the Chinese solar giant, has won a contract to supply photovoltaic panels for a 150-megawatt project in Arizona, marking China’s entry into a lucrative United States power-plant market dominated by American companies.

The project is the first phase of a planned 700-megawatt project called Mesquite Solar to be built about 40 miles west of Phoenix and operated by Sempra Generation, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy. A California utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, will purchase the electricity produced by the power plant’s first phase, called Mesquite Solar 1.

As photovoltaic panel prices have plummeted in recent years, utilities have increasingly turned to developers to build massive megawatt projects. American companies like First Solar of Tempe, Ariz., and Silicon Valley’s SunPower have captured the bulk of those contracts.

For instance, last month Southern California Edison signed contracts with SunPower to buy 711 megawatts of electricity from three large photovoltaic projects.

While Chinese companies like Suntech, Yingli Green Energy and Trina Solar have grabbed a significant percentage of the American residential solar market — supplying nearly 40 percent of panels in California — they had shied away from huge utility-scale projects.

Suntech has supplied solar panels for much smaller utility projects but expects large power plants like Mesquite Solar to account for a growing share of its United States revenues, according to Andrew Beebe, the company’s chief commercial officer.

“We think it is significant for us to win a project this large but I don’t know if it’s a China-U.S thing,” Mr. Beebe said in an interview. “We are a global company and we sell all over the world though the vast majority of our product is manufactured in China.”

Last year, Suntech opened its first American factory in Goodyear, Ariz., about 30 miles from the Mesquite site. Mr. Beebe said the factory, which is expected to have a capacity of 50 megawatts by the end of 2011, will supply less than 10 percent of the solar panels for Mesquite Solar 1.

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 30, 2010.

With NRG Energy’s announcement on Tuesday that it will invest $450 million investment in a California photovoltaic project, the New Jersey-based power provider has pledged a total of $750 million for big solar plants in the past two months.

A new report from GTM Research indicates why NRG sees such sunny prospects for the solar business. According to the researchers, utilities in the United States already have signed contracts for 5,400 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic power plants that will be built by 2014 with another 10,100 megawatts in negotiation.

The U.S. utility-scale photovoltaic market is expected to grow from $1 billion in 2010 to $8 billion by 2015, the report said.

“The global PV industry is increasingly turning its attention toward the U.S. utility PV market as a driver of global demand over the next five years,” the report’s authors wrote. “Indeed, conditions appear right to support massive growth.”

That growth is being driven by a 50 percent fall in the price of photovoltaic modules since 2009 as well as state mandates that require utilities to obtain a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.

The price of natural gas, though, will play a critical role in the competitiveness of solar power plants.

While solar farms can produce electricity at near-competitive rates with natural gas-fired power plants during peak demand in some states, the plunge in natural gas prices in recent years has put more pressure on photovoltaic developers to lower costs.

“From the perspective of the U.S. utility PV market, the importance of being within competitive range of a natural gas project is nearly as valuable as becoming cheaper, the report said. “In order for the U.S. utility market to take off, the key argument to be made by developers to utilities, and by utilities to their regulators, is that PV can deliver power at a competitive rate with other peaking facilities.”

No surprise that the largest solar market remains in California, where the state’s three big investor-owned utilities hold contracts for 78 percent of the nation’s 5,400 megawatt pipeline of projects.

But there is one dark cloud that threatens to rain on this photovoltaic parade: Project financing.

As part of the federal stimulus package, the government offered renewable energy developers the option of taking cash grants to cover 30 percent of a project’s costs in lieu of an existing investment tax credit. With the cash grant program expiring at year’s end, developers will have to turn to so-called tax equity investors who take the investment tax credit in exchange for cash to finance power plant construction.

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 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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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared:

China’s increasing domination of a rapidly expanding solar module industry is revealed in a report that shows that Chinese companies are expected to account for nearly 72 percent of new photovoltaic manufacturing capacity this year.

For instance, China’s LDK Solar will add the most new capacity in 2010 with 1,420 megawatts coming online, according to iSuppli, an El Segundo, Calif., technology research firm.

Norway’s REC took second place with 1,090 megawatts of manufacturing capacity expected to be added by year’s end.

But Chinese companies held seven of the top 10 positions on iSuppli’s list, representing 6,445 megawatts of manufacturing capacity.

Suntech Power Holdings will add 1,025 megawatts while JA Solar will expand manufacturing by 1,000 megawatts. Yingli Green Energy will add 800 megawatts of capacity by the end of the year while Trina Solar Energy will install an additional 700 megawatts.

“I go to Shanghai every six weeks and the scale of the operations is just jaw dropping, absolutely jaw dropping,” Conrad Burke, chief executive of Innovalight, a Silicon Valley solar company, said in a recent interview.

Innovalight itself abandoned plans to manufacture its own photovoltaic panels in late 2008 and now licenses a patented “silicon ink” to JA Solar and Yingli that boosts the efficiency of their solar modules.

“There’s nothing in California that even comes close to the scale in China,” said Burke.

In fact, earlier this month, Solyndra, a Silicon Valley startup that makes thin-film solar panels, announced it would shutter an existing factory in Fremont, Calif., and delay plans to expand a new manufacturing plant built with a $535 million federal loan guarantee. The company cited competition from low-cost Chinese manufacturers as a major factor in its move to scale back production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Tessera Solar

I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared:

The California Energy Commission has temporarily withdrawn approval of a controversial solar power plant by NTR’s Tessera Solar after opponents protested that the 663.5-megawatt Calico project had been improperly licensed.

California aims to get a third of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020 and the $2 billion plant is an important step toward that goal.

An attorney for California Unions for Reliable Energy had argued in a November 11 letter that the energy commission, which licenses large-scale solar thermal power plants, had not filed required written findings about Calico environmental consequences when it approved the project on October 28.

The order was issued late on Friday and the commission will take up the decision again on December 1, but the Sierra Club told Reuters on Monday that the environmental group may mount a legal challenge to Calico due to its impact on the imperiled desert tortoise, fringe-toed lizard and other wildlife.

“We are considering litigation,” Gloria D. Smith, a senior staff attorney with the Sierra Club in San Francisco, said in an email.

California Unions for Reliable Energy also is contemplating a legal challenge to the Calico decision on environmental grounds, said Marc D. Joseph, an attorney for the group.

Calico is one of seven huge solar thermal power plants that the energy commission has licensed over the past three months so developers can begin construction by the end of the year to qualify for a federal cash grant that covers 30 percent of a project’s cost.

Tessera has signed a contract to supply electricity generated by Calico to utility Edison International’s Southern California Edison, which is counting on the project to help it meet its renewable energy targets.

On Friday, Karen Douglas, the energy commission’s chairman, issued an order withdrawing the date approval would go into effect for Calico.

Douglas wrote that the decision did not mean that the commission agreed with the California Unions for Reliable Energy that the commission’s action had been improper.

Sean Gallagher, Tessera’s vice president of market strategy and regulatory affairs, described the issue as a procedural one that the commission could easily correct.

“There were some clerical errors in the way the documents were issued,” he said. “They are not going to address the substance of the decision.”

The company plans to deploy 26,540 solar dishes called Suncatchers at Calico. Resembling giant mirrored satellite receivers, each Suncatcher is 40 feet high and 38 feet wide and generates electricity by focusing the sun on a Stirling engine to heat hydrogen gas. As the gas expands, it drives pistons to generate electricity.

The commission approved Calico only after Tessera agreed to reduce its footprint nearly in half to 4,613 acres in Southern California’s Mojave Desert. The revised configuration would reduce the impact on the desert tortoise by 79 percent, the commission said.

But in an October 20 letter to the commission, Smith argued that even a downsized project would prove devastating to protected wildlife.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Amonix

I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared:

As solar panel prices have plummeted over the past year, photovoltaic power plants have become a more attractive option for utilities under pressure to meet renewable energy targets.

Case in point: Late last week utility Southern California Edison announced it had signed contracts for 239.5 megawatts of electricity to be generated by 20 small-scale photovoltaic farms.

“Photovoltaics are definitely more cost competitive than they were just a couple of years ago,” said Mike Marelli, director of contracts for renewable and alternative power at Southern California Edison. “We’re seeing just a wild response to our solicitations for projects.”

The utility has inked deals in past years for huge solar thermal power plants that can generate 500 megawatts or more. But those projects — which focus large arrays of mirrors on liquid-filled boilers to generate steam that drives electricity-generating turbines –  need vast stretches of desert land.  Transmission lines must often be built or upgraded to carry the power to coastal cities.

The photovoltaic farms, ranging in size from five megawatts to 20 megawatts, are designed to be built near existing transmission lines or substations and plugged into the grid. And in California, for instance, photovoltaic power plants do not undergo the extensive environmental review required of big solar thermal projects, meaning they can be built much more quickly.

In the power purchase agreements reached last week, Southern California Edison also for the first time placed bets on a technology known as concentrating photovoltaics – -CPV — signing contracts for 28.5 megawatts of electricity to be generated by four projects using technology supplied by Amonix,  a Seal Beach, Calif., company.

Resembling supersized solar panels, each Amonix CPV power generator is 77 feet by 50 feet and produces 72 kilowatts of electricity by using plastic lenses to focus the sun on tiny but highly efficient solar cells.

The panels are more efficient than conventional photovoltaic modules but high production costs, technological challenges and other hurdles had kept CPV on the sidelines with just a few small installations operating around the world.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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