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

In any emerging industry, there are turning points that bear watching. One of those occurred Tuesday when BrightSource Energy, a California developer of solar power plants, announced the appointment of John E. Bryson as its new chair.

Bryson is a key player in the energy-enviro-regulatory industrial complex, and a member in good standing of the Fortune 500 whose decision to join BrightSource is another signal that Big Solar will be a Big Thing.

A co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, Bryson went on to become chair and chief executive of Edison International, one of the United States’ largest utilities. He also serves on the boards of Boeing and Disney, as well as the Santa Monica electric car startup Coda Automotive. He is also an advisor to New York private equity and buyout giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

Before going corporate, Bryson was president of the California Public Utilities Commission and California State Water Resources Control Board.

In short, Bryson, 67, is someone who knows his way around the top echelons of the nation’s energy and financial power structure.

Such connections will be key for BrightSource. The company has so far signed contracts to supply more than 2,600 megawatts of electricity to California utilities PG&E and Southern California Edison. It will need to secure many billions of dollars in financing to build more than a dozen large-scale solar power plants to fulfill those deals.

The California Energy Commission on Wednesday is expected to license BrightSource’s first solar project, a 370-megawatt power plant to be built in Southern California’s Ivanpah Valley.

Bryson will serve as non-executive chair, meaning he will not have operational control over the company. A BrightSource spokesperson, though, told me Bryson “intends to be a very active board chair.”

BrightSource has shown itself adept at developing strategic relationships. It counts Google, Morgan Stanley, and Chevron as its investors and brought on engineering giant Bechtel as the chief contractor to build its first power plant as well as to take a stake in the project.

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

The same day this week that The New York Times published an extensive report by correspondent Keith Bradsher on China’s massive subsidies for renewable energy companies, Ernst & Young released a study showing that, not surprisingly, China has overtaken the United States as the most attractive place for green tech investment.

“China’s steady rise to pole position has been underpinned by strong and consistent government support for renewable energy,” Ben Warren, Ernst & Young’s environment and energy infrastructure advisory leader, said in a statement. “This, together with substantial commitment from industry and the sheer scale of its natural resources, means that its position as top spot for renewable energy investment is well merited.”

Some of that government support may violate World Trade Organization rules. On Thursday, an American union, the United Steelworkers, filed an unfair trade complaint against China with the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

But the Ernst & Young report points to failures on the part of the U.S. government to take action that would attract green investors.

For one thing, Congress has so far failed to establish a national Renewable Energy Standard that would require the country’s utilities to obtain a certain percentage of electricity from non-carbon-emitting sources.

Also, a federal tax subsidy program that is spurring construction of big solar power plants expires at the end of the year and legislation to extend the incentives is languishing in Congress.

“Although the United States remains a highly attractive location for investors in renewable energy, it is clear that recent events have eased momentum,” said Warren. “The U.S. market continues to have significant potential but requires consistent legislative support to provide investors with the long-term confidence they need.”

China, in contrast, “aims to reach an installed capacity of 300GW [gigawatts] of hydro, 70GW of nuclear, 100GW of wind, and 20GW of solar capacity by 2020,” according to the Ernst & Young study.

Reports by the U.S. Energy Information Agency provide a glimpse of the green imbalance of trade between the two countries. The figures from 2008 — apparently the latest available from the government — show that fewer than 1 percent of U.S.-made solar modules were shipped to China while nearly 23 percent of Chinese-made photovoltaic modules were exported to the U.S.

Since then, Chinese imports have risen dramatically. At the end of 2009, for instance, Chinese firms supplied about half the California solar market alone, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a consulting firm.

What China is not exporting, of course, is green jobs.

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

Talk about sporting greens: On Wednesday, all of the United States’ professional sports leagues said they would distribute a guide on how to switch to renewable energy and urge their teams to solarize their stadiums.

The guide was prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and marks a new alliance between environmentalists and the nation’s baseball, football, hockey, and soccer teams.

“It’s not a league mandate, it’s not a requirement for stadiums and arenas to install solar panels, but it indicates an important cultural shift recognized by professional sports that all arenas and stadiums in the country should at least consider and evaluate the opportunity that solar power might provide,” Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the NRDC, said during a conference call Wednesday.

“Frankly, sports matter. Sports matter a lot,” he added. “Sports is one of the most iconic and influential sectors of our society and frankly we need to have a cultural shift as well as a technical and economic shift if we’re going to advance and move to sustainability.”

In other words, if Jill Six-Pack sees that the Yankees have gone solar she might consider doing the same.

“We really have the ability to shift the dial,” said Darryl Benge, the assistant general manager of Qwest Field in Seattle, home to the Seahawks and Sounders. “We basically bring together small cities on game day.”

Representatives from the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and other stadiums said that economics as well as the environment were pushing them to go green.

Benge noted that Qwest Field’s electricity rates had jumped 18 percent this year, which played a part in the stadium’s decision to solicit bids to install a 600-kilowatt solar array.

In Los Angeles, the Staples Center flipped the switch on a 345.6-kilowatt photovoltaic system that has so far saved $100,000 in electricity costs, according to Lee Zeidman, executive vice president for operations for the facility.

The Staples Center has gone beyond solar to install waterless urinals that save seven million gallons of water annually, and switched to non-toxic cleaning products.

Other teams have tackled the waste issue. Scott Jenkins, the vice president of ballpark operations for the Seattle Mariners, said the team has saved $1 million over three years by recycling 80 percent of the waste generated at games.

Gary Betteman, commissioner of the National Hockey League, said 30,000 shopping bags were replaced with reusable totes during the Stanley Cup, and he noted that several NHL venues have installed solar panels.

Stadium managers acknowledged that sports’ biggest carbon footprint comes from fans driving to and from games. The challenge, they said, will be to get more fans to take public transportation as well as to build arenas in urban areas with accessible mass transit.

For his part, Hershkowitz said he was astounded that it has taken the environmental movement 40 years to forge a strong alliance with professional sports.

“If you want to change the world you don’t emphasize how different you are from everybody else,” he said. “You focus on your similarities.”

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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.”

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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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photo: Todd Woody

In a followup to my story in Wednesday’s New York Times about recycling farmland and toxic waste sites for renewable energy projects, I take a deeper dive into why some farmers in the California’s San Joaquin Valley want to stop raising crops and start growing electrons:

In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about an ambitious plan to build one of the world’s largest solar energy complexes on 30,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Elsewhere, big renewable energy projects have encountered opposition from farmers, ranchers and environmentalists who worry about the impact of solar power plants on agriculture, wildlife and scarce water supplies.

But farmers in the San Joaquin Valley’s Westlands Water District are embracing solar power as a solution to their water woes. And environmental groups are backing the project as a way to avoid fights over building solar power plants in pristine desert areas.

In the 1960s, the west side of the San Joaquin Valley was transformed from a desert to one of the nation’s most productive agricultural centers thanks to a huge irrigation project that transports water from Northern California and distributes it to 600,000 acres of farmland through 1,034 miles of underground pipes.

Decades of irrigation and drainage problems led to a buildup of salt in the soil that forced the water district to spend $100 million to acquire and retire 100,000 acres of land from most agricultural production. Drought and environmental disputes over the impact of water diversions on endangered fish, meanwhile, slashed water deliveries to Westlands farmers.

The water district hopes to make money off salt-contaminated land by providing an initial 12,000 acres to Westside Holdings, a firm that has proposed building a 5,000-megawatt photovoltaic power complex called the Westlands Solar Park.

And farmers like Mark Shannon have agreed to lease their parched land to Westside, reluctantly concluding there’s more money to be made by growing electrons than crops.

“Last year, we received only 10 percent of our water supply and we idled 85 percent of this ranch,” said Mr. Shannon of the 5,300-acre property that his family has farmed for three generations. “My dad is 67 and I can’t believe how many times I’ve called him and he’s in tears — he just always figured he’d pass this land on to me.”

Mr. Shannon took me up in a small plane for a bird’s-eye view of the impact of the water crisis on his land, where brown fields surround green patches of almonds and pistachios. Beyond his farm are dry lands that stretch to the horizon, property owned by the Westlands Water District and taken out of irrigated production.

“Last year, we had over 250,000 acres in the district that didn’t get farmed,” said Sarah Woolf, a Westlands spokeswoman. “Then you have drainage issues coupled with the long-term reliability of the water supply.”

Desperate farmers have been spending millions of dollars drilling hundreds of deep groundwater wells, which in turn has caused subsidence problems.

In other parts of California, the prospect of covering square miles of farmland with solar panels has stirred outrage among some rural residents. But Mr. Shannon and Westlands officials don’t expect any significant opposition in the San Joaquin Valley.

The reason: if farmers such convert their land to solar farms, their water allocations will be redistributed to their neighbors.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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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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