Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘California’

photo: Southern California Edison

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

The California Legislature started out the week in the green by passing the nation’s first energy storage bill. But legislators quickly ran into the red Wednesday when they failed to approve legislation to impose a statewide ban on plastic bags, or codify Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s executive order that utilities obtain a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

But don’t go crying in your organic beer yet. On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission signed off on 650 megawatts of new solar energy contracts and programs.

Whch all goes to show that in the Golden State, environmental politics are not green and brown. And despite the fate of Proposition 23, the oil company-bankrolled ballot initiative to suspend California’s global warming law, the state’s panoply of green laws allows progress to be made on various fronts.

The utilities commission, for instance, approved contracts for two giant photovoltaic solar farms to be built in the Mojave Desert by First Solar. Together they will supply 550 megawatts of electricity to the utility Southern California Edison.

Commissioner Timothy Simon noted at Thursday’s energy commission meeting in San Francisco that the price for that electricity is lower than previous solar contracts, another sign that photovoltaic power is edging ever closer to edging out fossil fuels. The price also speaks to the ability of First Solar, the Tempe, Ariz.-based thin-film solar company, to win and begin to execute big projects.

The commission also greenlighted San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposal for 100-megawatt’s worth of small-scale photovoltaic projects.

Most installations will be 1 or 2 megawatts and built in parking lots or other open spaces where they can be plugged into the grid without expensive transmission upgrades. The move comes on top of 1,000 megawatts of distributed solar generation that the utilities commission previously approved for California’s two other big utilities.

Michael R. Peevey, the president of the utilities commission, said despite the failure of the state legislature to institutionalize the 33 percent renewable portfolio standard — currently subject to reversal by the next governor — California was on a solar streak.

“With approval of this project we’ll have added 1,100 megawatts of photovoltaic electricity by the three utilities,” said Peevey, noting that separately the California Solar Initiative will add another 3,000 megawatts and that by year’s end regulators are poised to approve big solar farms that will generate 4,700 megawatts of electricity.

“These are big, big numbers,” Peevey added. “Independent of the legislature, we’re moving to a RPS economy.”

Read Full Post »

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

The California Legislature has passed the nation’s first energy storage bill, which could result in the state’s utilities being required to bank a portion of the electricity they generate.

Assembly Bill 2514 now heads to the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has made climate change and green technology his political legacy as his final term winds down.

Energy storage is considered crucial for the mass deployment of wind farms, solar power plants, and other sources of intermittent renewable energy, as well to build out the smart grid.

On the West Coast, for instance, the wind tends to blow hardest at night when demand for electricity is low. If utilities can store that wind-generated power — and energy from solar farms — in batteries, flywheels, and other devices, they can avoid building and firing up those billion-dollar, greenhouse gas-emitting, fossil-fuel power plants that are only used when demand spikes.

AB 2514 won the support of Jerry Brown, the California attorney general who is the Democratic candidate for governor. The Sierra Club and union groups also support the measure. Various business organizations, including the California Chamber of Commerce, opposed the bill.

Sponsored by Assembly member Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat, the bill was stripped of its more stringent provisions by the time it emerged from the legislative sausage-making process on Friday.

Originally, AB 2514 required California’s three big investor-owned utilities — PG&E, Southern California, and San Diego Gas & Electric — to have energy storage systems capable of providing at least 2.25 percent of average peak electrical demand by 2015. By 2020 the target would rise to at least 5 percent of average peak demand.

The bill now only requires that the California Public Utilities Commission determine the appropriate targets — if any — for energy storage systems, and then require the Big Three utilities to meet those mandates by 2015 and 2020. Publicly-owned utilities must set energy storage system targets to be met by 2016 and 2021.

Still, AB 2514 is a significant step and could ultimately help jump-start the market for energy storage, which remains in its infancy.

PG&E, for instance, plans to build an experimental facility that would tap electricity generated during peak wind farm production to pump compressed air into an underground reservoir. When demand jumps, the reservoir would release the air to run electricity-generating turbines which are capable of producing 300 megawatts of power.

And last week, PG&E proposed building a “pumped hydro” storage system. As its name implies, the system would pump water from one reservoir to another reservoir at a higher elevation during times of peak renewable energy production. Water in the upper reservoir would then be sent back downhill to power a turbine when electricity demand begins to spike.

Read Full Post »

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

No one said transforming the century-old power system into a state of-the-art digital smart grid was going to be easy. But California already is getting bogged down in a growing fight over installing smart utility meters in homes.

The wireless devices are a linchpin in building the smart grid as they allow the two-way, real-time transfer of data about a home’s power use. Utilities need that information to balance supply and demand on a power grid that will be increasingly supplied with intermittent sources of renewable energy while facing new demands from electric cars.

For homeowners, smart meters and an expected proliferation of smart refrigerators, dishwashers, and other appliances will help them keep a lid on rising electricity costs while making better use of rooftop solar panels.

But from the get-go, smart meters have raised a ruckus in California. First, residents in the state’s hot Central Valley complained that their utility bills spiked after the meters were installed last year.

Then in the San Francisco Bay Area, a small but vocal contingent has been arguing that smart meter antennas are a potential health threat. Never mind that every other person here seems to carry an iPhone, and many, if not most, homes in this tech-centric region boast wireless Internet routers that continuously transmit electromagnetic frequencies through the ether.

At first smart meters appeared to be a fringe issue — at the Fourth of July parade in the Marin County hippie beach enclave of Bolinas, I saw people holding up ban-the-smart-meter banners. But last week, I spotted similar homemade signs at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Meanwhile, the Marin towns of Fairfax and Novato have moved to ban smart meter installations; Santa Cruz County is considering doing the same.

Lost in all the hullabaloo is what a smart meter can do for managing your home’s carbon footprint. There are all kinds of gadgets and services coming down the pike that will let you control your electricity use from your phone and pinpoint the power hogs in your home. But even the most basic information provided by a smart meter is a big leap from a once-a-month bill.

My utility, PG&E, installed a smart meter at my house some months ago but just the other week began to let me monitor my electricity use on its website. If you want to geek out, you can really get granular by charting your power use hour-by-hour, pinpointing spikes and seeing how your lifestyle affects your energy consumption.

This morning, for instance, I learned that 21 days into the current billing cycle I’ve used $11 worth of electricity and that my projected total bill is between $15 and $20. My daily electricity use peaks around 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. and I’m using slightly fewer kilowatts than this time last year. I also set up an email alert to be sent if my electricity consumption kicks me into a more expensive rate tier.

And in the keeping down-with-the-Jones department, I learned that my energy use puts me at the very low end of the Berkeley spectrum.

All this provides valuable insight for the building of the green grid. But as with other efforts to transition to a renewable energy economy, overcoming political obstacles to the smart grid may be just as crucial as any technological triumph.

Read Full Post »

photo: NRDC

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

The climate war has shifted to California.

Proposition 23, an initiative that would suspend Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), the state’s landmark global warming law, provides the first ballot box test for climate change legislation — and for the prospects of reviving a national cap-and-trade bill.

So far, much of the media attention has focused on Prop 23’s funding. It’s being underwritten by the Texas oil companies Tesoro and Valero along with other mostly out-of-state petrochemical and fossil fuel interests. Prop 23 supporters have contributed more than $6.5 million to the campaign.

But a review of opposition fundraising — for the No on 23 campaign — offers a revealing look at what amounts to a fight for the future, a struggle between the industrial behemoths of the old fossil fuel economy and a startup coalition of environmental groups, Silicon Valley technology companies, financiers, and old-line corporations looking to profit from decarbonizing California.

“The choice that is before California is between the new clean economy versus the dirty old economy,” says Annie Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Silicon Valley folks who are willing to invest in the new clean energy economy with their dollars are tangible evidence that this is an economic issue as well as an environmental one.”

The NRDC has emerged as one of the key fundraisers, funneling more than a million dollars to the No on 23 campaign to date. Big green groups such as NRDC and the Environmental Defense Fund took the lead on forging alliances with Fortune 500 companies in the unsuccessful effort to pass national climate change legislation. In contrast, the heavy hitters in California’s Prop 23 battle are green tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, who have traditionally shied away from electoral politics.

The last stand for climate change has brought John Doerr, a leading green tech investor with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, to the table. Doerr has given $500,000 to defeat Prop 23. And he’s not alone.

Wendy Schmidt, founder the 11th Hour Project, a Silicon Valley environmental grant-making nonprofit (and wife of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt), donated $500,000 to NRDC’s No Prop 23 Committee. (Disclosure: The Schmidt Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Grist’s, and Wendy Schmidt is a member of the Grist Board.)

Google itself hasn’t contributed to the No campaign, but last week the search giant’s green energy chief, Bill Weihl, assured a gathering at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters that, “We’re strongly behind the No on 23 campaign” and the global warming law, known as AB 32.

When asked about Google’s potential financial support for the No campaign, company spokesperson Parag Chokshi said, “Google has been a very strong supporter of AB 32 and wants it to be implemented. We’ll continue to monitor the situation as we move forward.”

To date, the heaviest hitter on Team No is Thomas Steyer, the press-shy founder of San Francisco hedge fund Farallon Capital Management. Steyer, a big donor to Democratic candidates, has pledged $5 million and stepped forward to co-chair the No on 23 Committee with George Schulz, the Republican former secretary of state.

“I personally come at this issue as a businessperson who cares about the economic future of California as well as the environmental and security issues here,” Steyer said on a conference call late last month. “The right way to frame this is that we have a fairly stark choice to either move forward or turn back the clock.”

“We have 12,000 companies in California working on clean energy already,” he added. “It’s going to be one of the dominant spaces in the world and for us to excel and lead in this area we need a consistent regulatory framework for investment.”

Yet another mainstream investor is Robert Fisher, former chair of The Gap, the San Francisco-based clothing empire. Like Schmidt, Fisher has put up a half million dollars for the NRDC fund. And Southern California investor Anne Getty Earhart, an heir to the Getty oil fortune, donated $250,000 directly to the No campaign.

“What makes this unusual is that this is not your classic tree-huggers-versus-big business battle,” says Steve Maviglio, a longtime California Democratic operative and the chief spokesperson for the No on Prop 23 campaign. “Environmentalists, dyed-in-the-wool businessmen, tech companies — they have all been very active in fundraising, active on the lecture circuit and before editorial boards.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

photo: Todd Woody

This post first appeared on Grist.

The California Assembly has passed legislation that takes the first step to requiring that a percentage of electricity generated in the state be stored.

Electricity, of course, is the ultimate perishable commodity. If the bill is approved by the California Senate and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it would apparently be the first time a state will move toward mandating that electricity generated by wind farms, solar power plants, and other intermittent sources be stored for use during peak demand.

That’s key if California is to meet its ambitious mandates to obtain 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

“Electric energy storage is an emerging industry that offers the possibility to solve a number of major obstacles to the achievement of a sustainable electricity future,” according to an analysis of the legislation prepared by the California Public Utilities Commission in May. “It can effectively address problems such as the integration of intermittent renewables.”

Sponsored by Assembly member Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat, the bill has been watered down to make it palatable to the state’s utilities and regulators. It originally required the state’s utilities to obtain energy storage systems capable of providing at least 2.25 percent of average peak electrical demand by 2014. By 2020 the target would rise to at least 5 percent.

The latest version of the bill now wending its way through the state Senate requires the California Public Utilities Commission to open proceedings on energy storage and by October 2013 to adopt an initial target — if appropriate — for utilities to meet by the end of 2015.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor, is sponsoring the legislation, which is backed, not surprisingly, by the renewable energy industry and venture capitalists.

“It’s part of our bigger effort to deal with climate change,” Cliff Rechtschaffen, Special Assistant Attorney General, told me. “When we looked at how to develop renewables, the technology is here but stalled by lack of regulatory focus.”

Utilities spend billions of dollars building so-called peaker plants that operate just hours a year to supply electricity and avoid blackouts when demand spikes — say, on a hot day when everyone cranks up their air conditioners.

Such costs — and greenhouse gas emissions — could be cut or reduced if electricity stored from wind farms or solar power plants could be dispatched when demand rises.

A report prepared for the California Energy Commission and released this month concluded that adding gigawatts of wind and solar energy to the grid to meet renewable energy mandates would require “major alterations to system operations.”

Without storage, more natural gas power plants or hydroelectric facilities would need to be built to smooth out grid operations as increasing amounts of solar and wind energy comes online, according to the report prepared by Kema, an energy consulting firm.

“Storage can be up to two to three times as effective as adding a combustion turbine to the system,” the report stated.

The cost and feasibility of such storage systems is another matter, as it remains a nascent industry.

Most efforts focus on using batteries or mechanical systems like flywheels to store electricity. California utility PG&E has launched a pilot project to store electricity in the form of compressed air. Some developers of solar power plants intend to use molten salt to capture heat that can be released and used to drive an electricity-generating turbine after the soon goes down.

“This bill moves storage to the top of the regulatory agenda where it belongs,” says Rechtschaffe

Read Full Post »

Photo: SolFocus

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote that Silicon Valley startup SolFocus is building the first large concentrating photovoltaic power plant in the United States:

The nation’s first big concentrating photovoltaic power plant is under construction in the California desert.

SolFocus, a Silicon Valley startup, is building the one-megawatt solar farm for Victor Valley College in Victorville, a desert community northeast of Los Angeles.

The company builds large solar panels that contain small mirrors that concentrate sunlight onto tiny, high-efficiency solar cells. Though more expensive than conventional solar cells, they use a fraction of the silicon and produce more electricity. That means less land is needed for a SolFocus power plant than one deploying conventional photovoltaic panels.

The SolFocus panels are mounted on trackers that follow the sun throughout the day. While SolFocus has built power plants in Europe, the California project is its first solar farm in the United States. Victor Valley College selected SolFocus after receiving competitive bids from several companies that install conventional photovoltaic panels and thin-film solar systems.

“After reviewing several options for a solar provider, SolFocus demonstrated that it could deliver the best value in solar energy for the college,” Robert Silverman, Victor Valley College’s president, said in a statement. The SolFocus power plant will supply about 30 percent of the college’s overall electricity demand.

SolFocus’ technology needs strong, direct sunlight to maximize electricity production. “If this deployment had been in somewhere in Northern California or Washington or Oregon, we probably wouldn’t have won the battle,” said Nancy Hartsoch, a vice president of marketing at SolFocus. Ms. Hartsoch added that in desert regions, the company’s technology generates electricity at prices competitive with traditional photovoltaic panels.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

photo: Picarro

I follow up my story in Wednesday’s New York Times about California’s move to build the first statewide greenhouse gas monitoring network with a look at why such programs may be necessary to prevent a meltdown in the carbon markets:

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about California’s move to set up what is believed to be the world’s first statewide greenhouse gas monitoring network.

The Silicon Valley company Picarro manufacturers greenhouse gas measurement devices.
The first objective of the network, which will place analyzers around the state to measure methane in the atmosphere, will be to determine if actual emissions match estimates.

The California Air Resources Board assembles those estimates, called inventories, from computer models that rely on data such as how many grams of methane is burned per gallon of gasoline multiplied by the number of gallons sold in the state.

Such models, which follow protocols established by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are used worldwide. And while monitoring stations scattered around the world measure average global greenhouse gas concentrations, they don’t identify how much methane is being released in, say, California’s Central Valley, where methane emissions from livestock are assumed to be plentiful.

The recent Copenhagen climate change talks faltered in part over the issue of how to verify emissions. And the integrity of emissions trading schemes will depend on ensuring that companies don’t game the market by deliberately or inadvertently under-reporting how much carbon they’re putting into the atmosphere.

“If the markets are not matching reality, we will find out at some point and the markets will then adjust with a huge shock,” said Pieter Tans, a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Colorado.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »