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Posts Tagged ‘renewable energy projects’

photo: PG&E

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

It’s been a big week for Big Solar.

On Wednesday, the California Energy Commission approved a license for the nation’s first new large-scale solar thermal power plant in two decades. Over the next month, the energy commission is expected to green-light three more big solar farms to be built in the Mojave Desert. The projects would collectively generate nearly 2,000 megawatts of electricity. At peak output, that’s the equivalent of a couple of large nuclear power plants.

Less noticed but equally momentous were developments this week on the small-scale solar front.

On Tuesday, an administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued a proposed decision that would establish a world-first reverse auction system for renewable energy projects. The idea is to build 1,000 megawatts of decentralized energy generation by allowing developers to bid on projects that would each produce between one and 20 megawatts of electricity. Projects could include small solar farms built on vacant suburban land, or photovoltaic arrays placed on top of wastewater treatment plants or on any other large structures with unused rooftop space.

Think of it as eBay for green energy.

The goal is to accelerate the market for small-scale photovoltaic systems by requiring California’s three big investor-owned utilities to hold auctions twice a year where developers bid on projects that can be built quickly — within 18 months — and plugged into the existing power grid.

By letting the market essentially determine electricity prices rather than the government setting a premium rate to be paid for renewable energy, California hopes to avoid the boom-and-bust cycles that have whipsawed the European solar industry when subsidies have been cut.

“This mechanism would also allow the state to pay developers a price that is sufficient to bring projects online but that does not provide surplus profits at ratepayers’ expense,” utilities commission staff wrote in proposing the so-called reverse auction mechanism last year. “Providing a clear and steady long-term investment signal rather than providing a pre-determined price can create a competitive market.”

While the program would initially set up an auction for 1,000 megawatts, administrative law judge Burton W. Mattson wrote in his decision that that cap could be raised in the future if the auction system is successful.

The proposed decision now needs the approval of the CPUC, which seems a foregone conclusion.

In a sign that there will be no shortage of bidders for solar projects, utility Southern California Edison this week submitted for regulatory approval contracts for eight distributed photovoltaic farms that would generate a total of 140 megawatts.

Most of the mini-power plants will generate 20 megawatts and can be located near utility substations, avoiding the need for expensive new transmission projects.

Southern California Edison also requested approval of contracts for two small biomass power plants and three wind energy projects, one of which will generate 4 megawatts while the other two would each produce 20 megawatts at peak output. Altogether the power purchase agreements are worth $556 million.

The utility said that while it was soliciting contracts for a total of 250 megawatts, it received applications to build projects that would generate nearly twice that amount of electricity.

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siting1

Can Google help defuse a simmering green civil war between renewable energy advocates and wildlife conservationists in the American West?

That’s the idea behind a new Google Earth mapping project launched Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society. Path to Green Energy will identify areas in 13 western states potentially suitable for massive megawatt solar power plants, wind farms, transmission lines and other green energy projects. The app will also pinpoint critical habitat for protected wildlife such as the desert tortoise in California and Wyoming’s sage grouse as well as other environmentally sensitive lands.

“This was information that was unavailable or very scattered,” said Google.org program director David Bercovich at a press conference. “The potential cost savings from this will be enormous. If we can get people to the right areas and streamline the process that will have enormous benefits in getting clean energy online faster.”

NRDC senior attorney Johanna Wald said her group already is using Path to Green Energy in New Mexico to help plan a new transmission project. “Careful siting is the key to renewable energy development,” she said, noting that NRDC has mapped 860 million acres. “We’re not greenlighting development on places that are on our map but we’re providing a framework for discussion.”

siting2The unveiling of Path to Green Energy comes two weeks after California Senator Dianne Feinstein announced she would introduce legislation to put as many as 600,000 acres of the Mojave Desert off limits to renewable energy development to protect endangered wildlife and their habitats.  Solar developers have filed lease claims on a million acres of federal land in the California Mojave and there are state and federal efforts already under way to identify green energy zones across the West.

Path to Green Energy is designed to give regulators and developers a tool to choose the best potential sites for solar and wind farms so they don’t get bogged down in years-long and multimillion-dollar fights over wildlife.  Ausra, BrightSource Energy and other developers of the first half-dozen solar power plant projects moving through the licensing process in California have spent big sums on hiring wildlife consultants who spend thousands of hours surveying sites for desert tortoises, blunt-nosed leopard lizards and other protected species.

The Google Earth app won’t do away with the need to do such detailed environmental review but puts in one package a variety of information that developers must now cobble together themselves — if they can find it. Path to Green Energy could also prove valuable to utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) as more and more projects are proposed and regulators scrutinize the cumulative impact of Big Solar power plants across regions.

For instance, in California’s San Luis Obispo County, three large-scale solar farms are being planned within a few miles of each other by Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR). That has resulted in delays as wildlife officials initiate studies looking at how all those projects affect the movement of wildlife throughout the area. Going forward, Path to Green Energy will give developers a snapshot of where the wild things are, as well as wildlife corridors to help them avoid siting one plant too close to another in a way that may impede animals’ migration. That could save millions of dollars in mitigation costs – money builders must spend to acquire land to replace wildlife habitat taken for a power plant project as well as avoid fights with environmental groups that have become increasingly uneasy about Big Solar projects.

If the desert tortoise is the critter to avoid when building solar power plants in the Mojave, the sage grouse poses problems for Wyoming wind farms. Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming, said Path to Green Energy shows the densities of sage grouse across the state, allowing developers to stay clear of those areas.

“We get a solid indication of where energy development shouldn’t go,” he said. “Just as important, we get a better sense of the places that should be evaluated for wind turbine farms and transmission lines. The maps make clear that there is plenty of room for green energy.”

The payback from using Web 2.0 software could indeed be tremendous, given that Google (GOOG) spent a scant $50,000 in donations to NRDC and Audubon to create the maps.

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