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Archive for the ‘solar 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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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Portlandia may not be the sunniest of places, but it’s exporting solar energy in the form of photovoltaic panels used to build carbon-free power plants.

On Wednesday, SolarWorld — the German photovoltaic module maker that operates a big factory in Hillsboro, Ore. — announced it would supply panels and help develop an 11.6-megawatt solar farm in the Southern California desert for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

That’s a fairly small solar power plant. But it’s notable in that SolarWorld is jumping into the solar power plant development business. It’s also notable that the LADWP, the nation’s biggest municipally owned utility — immortalized in the Roman Polanski classic Chinatown for making the water grab that enabled modern Los Angeles — is taking steps to wean itself from coal-fired power.

For SolarWorld, the LADWP deal is back to the future. Ben Santarris, SolarWorld’s public affairs manager, told me that in 1981, during the solar dark ages, the world’s first 1-megawatt photovoltaic power plant was installed in Southern California by a firm subsequently acquired by the German company.

Santarris said solar panel supply had hindered SolarWorld’s power plant ambitions. But with the expansion of its Oregon factory, the company is back in the game.

“Just recently, for instance, we finished engineering and supply for a 1 MW system for the city of Bakersfield, and we are working on other similar projects in the distributed generation range of utility-scale projects,” Santarris said in an email. “Expansion of our U.S. capacity to 500 MW, however, has allowed us to resume our former vigor in multi-megawatt projects.”

And while California utilities have cultivated a clean and green image — you won’t find coal-fired power plants in the Golden State — the dirty little secret is that out-of-state coal supplies about 20 percent of our electricity. The LADWP is particularly coal-dependent, getting about 40 percent of its power from the black stuff.

California regulators have prohibited the state’s three big investor-owned utilities from signing any more long-term contracts for coal-fired power, and the LADWP has pledged to replace coal with renewable energy.

As part of that effort, SolarWorld is supplying 46,322 photovoltaic panels for what is called the Adelanto project. The LADWP will own and operate Adelanto, now under construction, when the power plant is completed.

The deal comes after the region’s dominant utility, Southern California Edison, has signed 1,081 megawatts worth of deals for photovoltaic power plants just since January.

Increasingly, it’s a solar world and we just live in it.

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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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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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