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On Thursday in The New York Times, I write about an independent report that finds that PG&E’s smart meters are not responsible for higher utility bills incurred by some customers:

After Pacific Gas & Electric, the giant California utility, began installing smart meters in the state’s Central Valley, the company was swamped with complaints from residents that their utility bills had increased.

But an independent review of the smart meters released Thursday found that the devices were functioning properly and attributed the high charges to a heat wave last year that coincided with their installation as well as poor customer service by P.G.&.E.

“They are accurately recording usage and throughout our evaluation we found no systemic issues,” Stacey Wood, an executive with the Structure Group, a Houston consulting company, said on Thursday at a meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission. “We did identify there were weakness in the focus on customer service.”

The utilities commission hired the Structure Group to conduct test P.G.&.E’s smart meters and conduct a technical review.

The digital devices wirelessly transmit data on a home’s electricity and natural gas usage to utilities while allowing residents to monitor their electricity consumption in real time. Smart meters are considered a linchpin for the development of a smart power grid and tens of millions of the gadgets are set to be installed nationwide in coming years.

But the rollout has been anything but smooth in California, where nearly 10 million smart meters will be deployed.

“By the fall of 2009, the C.P.U.C. had received over 600 smart meter consumer complaints about ‘unexpectedly high’ bills and allegations that the new electric smart meters were not accurately recording electric usage, almost all of which were from P.G.&E.’s service area,” according to the Structure Report.

The consulting firm said it then tested more than 750 smart meters in the laboratory and in the field and reviewed utility account records for 1,378 customers, including those that had complained of abnormally high bills.

“Of the 613 smart meter field tests, 611 meters were successfully tested, and 100 percent passed average registration accuracy,” the report stated.

The study attributed some residents’ higher bills to a 2009 heat wave in Kern County as well as increased electricity usage due to new swimming pools or additions to their homes.

Then there was P.G.&E.’s handling of the controversy.

“P.G.&E. processes did not address the customer concerns associated with the new equipment and usage changes,” the report said. “Customer skepticism regarding the new advanced meter technology was not effectively addressed by P.G.&E. on a timely basis.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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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.

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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.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about a growing movement to repurpose farmland and toxic waste sites for big renewable energy projects:

LEMOORE, Calif. — Thousands of acres of farmland here in the San Joaquin Valley have been removed from agricultural production, largely because the once fertile land is contaminated by salt buildup from years of irrigation.

But large swaths of those dry fields could have a valuable new use in their future — making electricity.

Farmers and officials at Westlands Water District, a public agency that supplies water to farms in the valley, have agreed to provide land for what would be one of the world’s largest solar energy complexes, to be built on 30,000 acres.

At peak output, the proposed Westlands Solar Park would generate as much electricity as several big nuclear power plants.

Unlike some renewable energy projects blocked by objections that they would despoil the landscape, this one has the support of environmentalists.

The San Joaquin initiative is in the vanguard of a new approach to locating renewable energy projects: putting them on polluted or previously used land. The Westlands project has won the backing of groups that have opposed building big solar projects in the Mojave Desert and have fought Westlands for decades over the district’s water use. Landowners and regulators are on board, too.

“It’s about as perfect a place as you’re going to find in the state of California for a solar project like this,” said Carl Zichella, who until late July was the Sierra Club’s Western renewable programs director. “There’s virtually zero wildlife impact here because the land has been farmed continuously for such a long time and you have proximity to transmission, infrastructure and markets.”

Recycling contaminated or otherwise disturbed land into green energy projects could help avoid disputes when developers seek to build sprawling arrays of solar collectors and wind turbines in pristine areas, where they can affect wildlife and water supplies.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for instance, are evaluating a dozen landfills and toxic waste sites for wind farms or solar power plants. In Arizona, the Bureau of Land Management has begun a program to repurpose landfills and abandoned mines for renewable energy.

In Southern California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has proposed building a 5,000-megawatt solar array complex, part of which would cover portions of the dry bed of Owens Lake, which was drained when the city began diverting water from the Owens Valley in 1913. Having already spent more than $500 million to control the intense dust storms that sweep off the lake, the agency hopes solar panels can hold down the dust while generating clean electricity for the utility. A small pilot project will help determine if solar panels can withstand high winds and dust.

“Nothing about this is simple, but it’s worth doing,” Austin Beutner, the department’s interim general manager, said of the pilot program.

All of the projects are in early stages of development, and many obstacles remain. But the support they’ve garnered from landowners, regulators and environmentalists has attracted the interest of big solar developers such as SunPower and First Solar as well as utilities under pressure to meet aggressive renewable energy mandates.

Those targets have become harder to reach as the sunniest undeveloped land is put off limits.

Last December, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced legislation to protect nearly a million acres of the Mojave Desert from renewable energy development.

But the senator’s bill also includes tax incentives for developers who build renewable energy projects on disturbed lands.

For Westlands farmers, the promise of the solar project is not clean electricity, but the additional water allocations they will get if some land is no longer used for farming.

“Westlands’ water supply has been chronically short over the past 18 years, so one of the things we’ve tried to do to balance supply and demand is to take land out of production,” said Thomas W. Birmingham, general manager of the water district, which acquired 100,000 acres and removed the land from most agricultural production. “The conversion of district-owned lands into areas that can generate electricity will help to reduce the cost of providing water to our farmers.”

You can read the rest of the story here:

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

As the Great Recession drags on in California — unemployment rate: 12.4 percent, state government in a state of collapse — the solar boom continues.

The Golden State’s decade-long program to install 3,000 megawatts of photovoltaic arrays on residential and commercial rooftops kicked off in 2007, not too long before the global economic collapse began.

Only three years in, the program — known as the California Solar Initiative — has achieved 42 percent of its 1,750 megawatt target in markets served by the state’s three, big investor-owned utilities, according to a report released Friday by the California Public Utilities Commission. Completed projects account for 20 percent of that 42 percent figure, while another 22 percent are pending installations. (In 2009, the solar program eliminated 180,136 tons of carbon, the equivalent of taking 31,000 cars off the road.)

Demand for solar is accelerating even as the housing market remains in the doldrums. Applications for the solar rebate program hit a high of 134 megawatts in April, and in the first six months of 2010 a total of nearly 300 megawatts’ worth of projects were received.

“The monthly demand for new applications has been well over 1,000 applications per month for the past year,” the report stated.

And Californians’ appetite for solar has grown even as the rebate for new photovoltaic systems has declined, as it is designed to do over the life of the program.

State and federal tax incentives have cut the cost of a solar array roughly in half. And last year’s global glut of photovoltaic modules and the influx of Chinese solar companies into the U.S. market has led to drops in the price of solar panels. (Installation costs still account for about half the price of a solar array.) Overall, the cost of solar systems smaller than 10 kilowatts has dropped by 15 percent between 2007 and 2010 while the price of bigger arrays has fallen 10 percent, according to a report released Friday by the California Public Utilities Commission. (In general, a 10-kilowatt solar array could power a large home or commercial building.)

But one of the biggest factors persuading Californians to go solar appears to be the increasing availability of solar leases. These financial arrangements allow homeowners to have a system installed at little or no upfront cost in exchange for a monthly fee.

Companies such as SolarCity, Sungevity, and SunRun offer solar leases and retain ownership of the rooftop arrays. In 2009, such ownership of solar systems enrolled in the state program jumped 155 percent. Forty percent of the megawatts now generated through the program are owned by leasing companies or other third parties.

Fueling that trend has been the hundreds of millions of dollars that financial giants such as U.S. Bancorp have poured into solar financing funds for SolarCity, Sungevity, and SunRun. So far this year, PG&E Corporation, the parent company of California utility PG&E, has created funds totaling $160 million to finance solar leases for SolarCity and SunRun customers.

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photo: PG&E

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

Amid the hullabaloo over government-chartered mortgage giants derailing the green financing program known as Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, the march toward distributed generation of renewable energy — that is, generating electricity from decentralized sources such as rooftop solar panels or backyard wind turbinescontinues.

Case in point: The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) announced Wednesday that it had awarded contracts to San Francisco’s Recurrent Energy to install 60 megawatts’ worth of solar panels in the region surrounding California’s state capital.

Rather than construct a central solar power station, Recurrent will scatter a dozen five-megawatt installations around two cities in Sacramento County. Each installation will be located near an existing substation, which means that the solar arrays can be plugged directly into the grid without requiring any expensive transmission upgrades.

As I wrote earlier this year in Grist, when SMUD put 100 megawatts of renewable energy contracts out for bid, the allocation sold out within a week. The utility is paying the solar developers a standard premium for their photovoltaic energy — called a feed-in-tariff. But according to calculations done by Vote Solar, a San Francisco non-profit that promotes solar energy, SMUD will pay no more for this clean green solar electricity than it does for fossil-generated power at peak demand times. A 40-percent plunge in solar module costs over the past year has made solar photovoltaic energy increasingly competitive with natural gas, the main fossil fuel used in California to generate electricity.

California’s two big investor-owned utilities, PG&E and Southern California Edison, have launched similar distributed generation programs, which will bring 1,000 megawatts of photovoltaic installations online over the next five years. At peak oputput, that’s the equivalent of a nuclear power plant.

Two weeks ago, PG&E cut the ribbon on the first project to come online as part of its 500-megawatt distributed generation initiative. The two-megawatt Vaca-Dixon Solar Station is built near a utility substation 50 miles north of San Francisco.

It took just nine months to install the fields of solar panels for the Vaca-Dixon station — that’s light speed in a state where the first new big solar thermal power plant in 20 years, BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah project, has been undergoing licensing for nearly three years.

Solar thermal power plants generate electricity by using mirrors to focus the sun on a liquid-filled boiler. The process creates create steam that drives a conventional turbine which can generate hundreds of megawatts of electricity. Solar thermal projects, by nature, are large centralized facilities, the clean and green versions of a big fossil-fuel power plant.

Photovoltaic farms, on the other hand, generate electricity when sunshine strikes semiconducting materials in a solar cell. If you want to produce more power, you just keep adding solar panels.

While BrightSource hopes to secure a license for its solar thermal project soon, the developer of a hybrid biomass solar trough power plant to be built in California’s Central Valley pulled the plug on the project last month, after spending 18 months and untold millions of dollars in the licensing process before the California Energy Commission.

PG&E has been depending on both those solar thermal projects to supply electricity to help it meet its renewable energy mandates. No wonder then, the utility’s growing enthusiasm for solar panel power. Photovoltaic farms do not have to be approved by California Energy Commission and can be built on already degraded land or close to cities.

And as I reported last month, the developer of another project being built to generate electricity for PG&E, the Alpine SunTower, decided to drop solar thermal technology made by its partner, eSolar, in favor of photovoltaic panels. The official explanation for the switch was that project was being downsized due to transmission constraints and solar panels proved a better fit.

But one has to wonder if economics as much as energy was behind the change. If so, deals like the one SMUD struck could be a recurrent theme.

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image: California Energy Commission

In The New York Times on Friday, I write about another setback in California’s scramble to meet its renewable energy targets:

The developer of a hybrid biomass solar power plant to be built in California has abruptly canceled the project, underscoring the challenges the state faces in meeting its ambitious renewable energy goals.

Martifer Renewables, a Portuguese company, had signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with the California utility PG&E for 106.8 megawatts. The power was to be generated from a pair of power plants called San Joaquin Solar 1 and 2 that would be built on 640 acres of agricultural land in Fresno County. The facility would produce electricity from a solar field by day and burn biomass collected from area farms by night. But 18 months into an extensive licensing process and after recently depositing $250,000 for a transmission study, Martifer notified the California Energy Commission last month that it was withdrawing its license application.

The developer’s representatives did not return a request for comment. But in a June 17 letter to the energy commission, Miguel Lobo, a Martifer executive, wrote, “We were not able at this time to resolve some of our issues regarding project economics and biomass supply amongst other things.”

Although local residents and regulators had raised issues about the proposed solar farm’s water consumption and other impacts, it was the project’s plan to operate around the clock by burning biomass that proved problematic, according to energy commission records.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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