Posts Tagged ‘Southern California Edison’

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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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about California regulators’ preliminary decision to reject requests by two big utilities to install grid-connected fuel cells:

While Google, Wal-Mart and other corporations have embraced fuel cells, California regulators have turned down requests from the state’s two biggest utilities to install the technology.

In a preliminary decision, an administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission found unwarranted an application from Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California to spend more than $43 million to install fuel cells that would generate six megawatts of electricity.

The technology transforms hydrogen, natural gas or other fuels into electricity through an electrochemical process, emitting fewer or no pollutants, depending on the type of fuel used.

“It is unreasonable to spend three times the price paid to renewable generation for the proposed Fuel Cell Projects, which are nonrenewable and fueled by natural gas,” wrote the administrative law judge, Dorothy J. Duda, in a proposed ruling issued last week. “In addition, the applications do not satisfactorily address how full ratepayer funding of utility-owned fuel cell generation would enhance private market investment and market transformation of the fuel cell industry.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Better Place

With electric cars months away from hitting the road, the California Public Utilities Commission has begun the complex task of establishing a regulatory framework for the state’s emerging electric vehicle infrastructure. The biggest fight is likely to be over whether to regulate companies like Better Place, which plans to build an electric car charging network in the state. As I write in The New York Times on Monday:

With electric cars set to hit the mass market next year, a skirmish is breaking out in California over who will control the state’s electric vehicle infrastructure.

The California Public Utilities Commission will write the rules of the electric road and is just starting to grapple with the complex regulatory issues surrounding the integration of battery-powered cars into the state’s electrical grid.

One of the biggest questions is whether to regulate Better Place, Coulomb Technologies and other companies that plan to sell electricity to drivers through a network of battery charging stations.

California’s three big investor-owned utilities have split over the issue.

“The commission should establish its authority to regulate third-party providers of electricity for electric vehicles,” Christopher Warner, an attorney for Pacific Gas & Electric, wrote in a filing with the utilities commission. “Managing the increased electricity consumption and load attributable to electric vehicles in order to avoid adverse impacts on the safety and reliability of the electric grid may be one of the most difficult management challenges that electric utilities will face.”

Southern California Edison, meanwhile, urged the commission to move cautiously, calibrating any regulation to the specific business models of the companies.

San Diego Gas & Electric said the commission does not have the right to regulate companies like Better Place.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Stirling SunCatcher

photo: Tessera Solar

Another day, another Big Solar deal.

Tessera Solar on Wednesday said it will build a 1.5 megawatt Stirling solar dish power plant outside Phoenix to supply electricity to utility Salt River Project.

The announcement follows Tuesday’s spate of solar power plant deals. As I wrote in The New York Times, utility Southern California Edison (EIX) agreed to buy 550 megwatts of solar electricity that will be generated by two massive thin-film photovoltaic power plants to be built by First Solar (FSLR). Later in the day on Tuesday, First Solar said that it had struck a deal with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to supply 55 megawatts from a PV farm to be constructed in Southern California’s Imperial Valley.

Tessera Solar is the development arm for Stirling Energy Systems, the maker of the SunCatcher solar dish. The company is developing two huge California projects — a 850-megawatt, 34,000-dish solar farm to be built on 8,230 acres to supply power to Southern California Edison and a 750-megawatt power plant complex for San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE).

The 60-dish Salt River Project solar farm is but a fraction of the California solar farms’ size but will serve as a demonstration project for Tessera’s technology.

Most notable, given the years-long licensing process for big solar power projects in places like California, Tessera plans to break ground next month and bring what it calls the Maricopa Solar plant online in January 2010.

Tessera will lease the project site from Salt River Project and sell the electricity to the utility under a 10-year power purchase agreement.

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Top 10 solar utilities

A solar industry trade group on Thursday released its list of the Top 10 solar integrated utilities of 2008 and it will come as no surprise that California’s Big Three utilities took the top three spots.

What is news, and a sign that solar’s reach is extending beyond the Golden State, is that six of the Top 10 solar utilities on the Solar Electric Power Association’s list hail from places like New York and New Jersey.

Still, San Francisco-based PG&E (PCG), which claimed the No. 1 slot, alone connected 84.9 megawatts of photovoltaic solar to the grid in 2008, accounting for 44% of all new solar capacity last year. Southern California Edison (EIX) came in second with 32.4 megawatts and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) took third place with 16 megawatts.

Xcel Energy (XEL) in Colorado was close behind with 14.2 megawatts. After that the numbers take a dive to the single megawatts. Still, utilities from not-so-sunny places like Portland, Ore.  made the list.

Southern California Edison is No. 1 when it comes to total installed solar to date — 441.4 megawatts — due largely to the 354 megawatts of electricity generated by nine solar thermal power plants built in the 1980s that continue to operate in the Mojave Desert. PG&E came in second with 229.5 megawatts connected to the grid so far.

Those numbers should skyrocket in the coming years as the California utilities have signed contracts for more than 3 gigawatts of electricity to be produced by large solar farms. Utilities like Arizona Public Service (PNW) — No. 5 on the list for 2008 — are also beginning to contract for solar electricity to be produced by massive megawatt solar power plants.

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photo: BrightSource Energy

California utility PG&E on Wednesday expanded an agreement with BrightSource Energy to buy 1,310 megawatts of carbon-free electricity to be generated by seven giant solar power plant projects – the world’s biggest solar deal to date. Coming on top of a 1,300 megawatt agreement with Southern California Edison in February, the Google-backed, Oakland, Calif.-based  startup says it now holds more than 40% of the Big Solar contracts in the United States.

PG&E had previously signed a power purchase agreement with BrightSource in April 2008 for 500 megawatts with an option to buy another 400 megawatts. The new 1,310-megawatt deal will supply enough electricity to power about 530,000 homes in California.

Those are impressive numbers, but not an electron of electricity has been produced yet. BrightSource now faces the challenge of licensing, financing billions of dollars in construction costs and then building nearly a dozen large-scale solar power plants to meet a 2016 deadline for the Southern California Edison (EIX) contract and a 2017 completion date for PG&E (PCG).  (The big wild card is whether transmission lines will be available to connect the power plants to the grid.) The first PG&E project is set to go online in 2012 with the first SoCal Edison solar farm to begin generating electricity the next year. Those first two power plants are part of a 400-megawatt complex BrightSource is planning for the Ivanpah Valley on the California-Nevada border.

“The biggest part of our strategy is to ramp up slowly and methodically,” BrightSource CEO John Woolard told Green Wombat. “We’re very, very careful about how we sequence the projects.”

To give you an idea of how arduous the licensing process is in California, consider that BrightSource filed its application to build Ivanpah with the California Energy Commission on Aug. 31, 2007 — the state’s first large-scale solar power plant application in two decades. But the energy commission currently estimates that it won’t sign off on the license until around 2010, more than six months’ behind schedule as a multitude of state and federal agencies and green groups weigh in on the project’s environmental impact. The clock is ticking as BrightSource needs to start shoveling dirt on the construction site by the end of 2010 to qualify for federal loan guarantees that are part of the Obama stimulus package.

BrightSource may also build solar power plants in Nevada and Arizona, where licensing is easier, to supply electricity to PG&E and Southern California Edison. Woolard says the company controls enough land for nine gigawatts’ worth of solar farms.

While BrightSource’s technology is untested on a large scale, the company has built a six-megawatt demonstration plant in Israel, where its technology development arm is headquartered. BrightSource deploys arrays of mirrors called heliostats that concentrate sunlight on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a tower. The intense heat vaporizes the water to create high-pressure steam that drives a standard electricity-generating turbine.

Woolard says an independent engineering firm, R.W. Beck, has validated the technology at the Negev Desert demo plant. That no doubt helped persuade PG&E, which has sent executives to Israel to inspect the project, to supersize its contract. (And while BrightSource represents the biggest solar deal PG&E has signed, it’s probably far more likely to be fulfilled than the utility’s agreement in April to buy electricity from a space-based solar farm to be built by Southern California startup Solaren.)

“What it came down to is that they saw us delivering,” Woolard says. “Our plant in Israel performed above expectations. The fact that we have a solar plant producing the highest quality, highest temperature, highest pressure steam anywhere in the world is the most important thing.”

The company’s pedigree also provides a certain amount of corporate comfort. BrightSource was founded by American-Israeli solar pioneer Arnold Goldman, whose Luz International built nine large-scale solar trough power plants in the Mojave Desert in the 1980s that continue to generate electricity for Southern California Edison. BrightSource has also raised more than $160 million from a blue-chip group of investors that includes Google (GOOG), Morgan Stanley (MS) and VantagePoint Venture Partners as well as a clutch of oil giants – Chevron (CVX), BP (BP) and Norway’s StatoilHydro.

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photo: Wild Rose Images

California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to put a large swath of the Mojave Desert off-limits to renewable energy development is splitting the environmental movement and could derail some two dozen solar and wind power projects the state needs to comply with its ambitious climate change laws.

On the firing line are 17 massive solar power plants and six wind farms planned for federal land — land that would be designated a national monument under legislation Feinstein intends to introduce. The solar projects in question would be built by a range of companies, from startups BrightSource Energy and Stirling Energy Systems to corporate heavyweights Goldman Sachs (GS) and FPL (FPL), according to federal documents. (For the complete list, see below.)

The companies are among scores that have filed lease claims on a million acres of acres of desert dirt controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. California utilities PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) have signed long-term power purchase agreements for some of the projects now in jeopardy and are counting on the electricity they would produce to meet state-mandated renewable energy targets. PG&E itself has filed a solar power plant land claim in the proposed national monument.

The area of the desert in dispute is some 600,000 acres formerly owned by Catellus, the real estate arm of the Union Pacific Railroad, and donated to the federal government a decade ago by the Wildlands Conservancy, a Southern California environmental group. About 210,000 of those acres are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which opened part of the land to renewable energy projects.

“Many of the sites now being considered for leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar released last week, notifying him that she will introduce legislation to designate the former Catellus lands a national monument. “Beyond protecting national parks and wilderness from development, the conservation of these lands has helped to ensure the sustainability of the entire desert ecosystem by preserving the vital wildlife corridors.”

The Catellus land controlled by the BLM forms something of a golden triangle between the Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California and are particularly coveted for renewable energy development because of its proximity to transmission lines.

Alan Stein, a deputy district manager for the BLM in California, told Green Wombat that the solar and wind lease claims are in areas that are not designated as wilderness or critical habitat for protected species like the desert tortoise. “This is public domain land, ” he says.

Tortoises, however, are found across the Mojave, and battles over Big Solar’s impact on endangered wildlife are quietly brewing in several solar power plant licensing cases now being reviewed by the California Energy Commission.  Environmentalists find themselves walking a thin green line, trying to balance their interest in promoting carbon-free energy with protecting fragile desert landscapes and a host of threatened animals and plants.

Take BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah 400-megawatt solar power plant complex on the California-Nevada border. The three solar power plants to be built by the Oakland-based company will supply electricity to PG&E and Southern California Edison. But the project will also destroy some 4,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat and at least 25 tortoises will have to be relocated – a somewhat risky proposition as previous efforts in other cases have resulted in the deaths of the animals.

On Wednesday, the California Energy Commission granted two national environmental groups – the Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club – the right to intervene in the Ivanpah case. “Defenders strongly supports … the development of renewable energy in California,” Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, wrote to the energy commission in a Jan. 23 letter.  “Defenders has several serious concerns about the potential impacts of this project on a number of rare, declining and listed species and on their associated desert habitat and waters.”

Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Johanna Wald wrote a letter with the Wilderness Society expressing concern over the impact of Ivanpah project on the desert tortoise but also made a strong statement of support for renewable energy development. “Our public lands harbor substantial wind, solar, and geothermal resources,” wrote Wald, who serves on a state task force to identify appropriate areas for renewable energy development. “Developing some of these resources will be important to creating a sustainable energy economy and combating climate change.”

The big national enviro groups are working with the government and power plant developers to create zones in the Mojave where renewable energy projects would be permitted while setting aside other areas that are prime habitat and wildlife corridors. A similar effort is underway on the federal level to analyze the desert-wide impact of renewable energy development.

Local environmental organizations, however, have split with the Big Green groups over developing the desert and other rural areas. In San Luis Obispo County,  Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar’s (FSLR) plans to build three huge solar farms within miles of each other has prompted some local residents worried about the impact on wildlife to organize in opposition to the projects.

And some small Mojave Desert green groups pledge to go to court to stop big solar projects. “We don’t want to see the Endangered Species Act gutted for the sake of mega solar projects,” veteran grass roots activist Phil Klasky told Green Wombat last year for a story on the solar land rush in the Mojave. “I can say the smaller environmental organizations I’m involved with are planning to challenge these projects.”

It would be unwise to underestimate Klasky. In the 1990s, he helped lead a long-running  and successful campaign to scuttle the construction of a low-level radioactive waste dump in tortoise territory in the Mojave’s Ward Valley – now a prime solar spot.

Still, while California’s senior senator’s move in the Mojave may exacerbate rifts in the environmental movement over renewable energy, it also could galvanize efforts to resolve critter conflicts in a comprehensive way. Otherwise, environmentalists of varying hues may find themselves fighting each other rather than global warming.

Update: I just had a conversation with BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs, who takes issue with my characterization that the Ivanpah project will “destroy” desert tortoise habitat. He points out that the company is taking care to minimize the impact of the power plant on the surrounding desert and that wildlife may still occupy the site. It would be more accurate to say that the project will remove desert tortoise habitat from active use during Ivanpah’s construction and operation.

(Below is a list of solar and wind projects that fall within the proposed Mojave national monument. Note: Solar Investments is a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs and Boulevard Associates is a subsidiary of FPL.)

source:  BLM


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photo: eSolar

SAN FRANCISCO — “It’s all about the software,” says eSolar CEO Bill Gross.

The tech entrepreneur and founder of startup incubator Idealab is explaining how eSolar’s solar power plants can produce carbon-free electricity cheaper than planet-warming natural gas. At the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco, Gross flashes a photo of eSolar’s demonstration solar farm outside the Southern California town of Lancaster, where 24,000 mirrors called heliostats surround two 150-foot towers.  The heliostats concentrate sunlight on a tower containing water-filled boilers and the resulting heat creates steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Rivals like BrightSource Energy use similar “power tower” technology but according to Gross, eSolar’s mirror-controlling software and modular plant design will allow it to produce cheaper solar electricity.

For instance, Gross says competitors use large, slightly curved mirrors to focus sunlight. That require big and expensive steel frames to hold the glass in place.  eSolar’s solution: make small flat mirrors the size of an LCD television screen that clamp on to a  5 x 12-inch frame and then use software and Big Iron computing to position the mirrors to create a parabola out of the entire heliostat field.

“We use Moore’s law rather than more steel,” quipped Gross, referring to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s maxim that computing power doubles every two years.

The heliostats roll off an assembly line in China with the wiring and sun-tracking motors built in. “The only tool required to install mirrors in the field is a hand wrench,” Gross says. “There’s  no welding in field, you just install the mirrors on the base. We’ve taken all the labor in the field and moved it to an automated factory.”

The heliostats also do not have to be precisely placed in the solar field, which saves time. “The rows can be wavy as the software will correct for it,” Gross notes. “We don’t need to do extensive surveys to design the field; we just need to leave enough space between mirrors.”

The bottom line: The five-megawatt Palmdale project was built in less than six months. “We think we can finish plants before other people start,” Gross told Green Wombat.

Gross says eSolar has also signed a 92-megawatt deal with a New Mexico utility, which he declined to identify until the agreement is announced. He said his Pasadena, Calif.-based company will also soon unveil a contract to build 500 megawatt’s worth of solar farms in Asia. So far, eSolar has spent $30 million acquiring land – mainly privately owned agricultural property – for solar power plants, according to Gross. He told Cleantech Forum participants that eSolar expects internal rates of return for its partners of between 11% and 14% for U.S. power plants and returns of 20% to 30% for overseas projects.

Also saving time and money are the power towers, which are made from two sections of a windmill tower. At 150 feet they’re half the size of competitors’ towers – again, less steel is needed. The lower height and the software systems that allow more mirrors to be crammed into smaller spaces means that eSolar’s power plants can be placed closer to urban areas where transmission lines are available.

Also unique is the boiler that sits atop the tower. Gross gave Green Wombat a close-up look the proprietary technology. About the size of a cargo shipping container, the “cavity receiver” has openings on either side. The heliostats focus sunlight into the interior of the boiler, which is lined with water-filled pipes.

“The benefit is that the light comes in and even if some light is reflected it can have multiple bounces and still hit the pipes,” Gross says. “We can get all the light inside the cavity all because of the software that controls the mirrors.”

Whether Google (GOOG)-backed eSolar’s plants produce electricity at the low rates Gross is claiming won’t be known until they start coming online. But utilities are betting that this solar software works. Southern California Edision (EIX) last year signed a 20-year-contract with eSolar for 245 megawatts of electricity while coal-dependent NRG Energy (NRG) this week agreed to invest $10 million in eSolar in exchange for the right to develop up to 500 megawatts using the company’s technology. (Southern California Edison is betting even bigger on BrightSource Energy’s power tower technology – two weeks ago the utility signed a 1,300 megawatt power purchase agreement with the Oakland startup – also backed by Google – the world’s largest solar deal to date.)

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photo: eSolar

NRG Energy, one of the United States’ most coal-dependent utilities, on Monday signed a deal with California startup eSolar to develop solar power plants.

The agreement calls for NRG  to invest $10 million in Pasadena-based eSolar for the right to use the startup’s technology to develop and operate three solar power projects in California and the Southwest that would generate 500 megawatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity.  NRG ranks as one of the nation’s dirtiest utilities,  spewing 70 million tons of carbon dioxide annually from its coal-fired power plants, according to a 2007 Fortune Magazine story.  But the Princeton, N.J.-based Fortune 500 company has sought to clean up its ways under CEO David Crane, pursuing carbon-capture technology and moving to build nuclear power plants.

Last year eSolar, founded by Idealab’s Bill Gross and backed by Google, won a 20-year contract to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of green electricity annually. Last  April, eSolar scored $130 million in funding from Google.org, Google’s (GOOG) philanthropic arm, and other investors to develop solar thermal technology that Gross claims will produce electricity as cheaply as coal-fired power plants.

Like rivals Ausra and BrightSource Energy – which have deals with utility PG&E (PCG) – eSolar will use fields of mirrors to heat water to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. Gross says that eSolar’s software allows the company to individually control smaller sun-tracking mirrors – called heliostats – which can be cheaply manufactured and which are more efficient and take up less land than conventional mirrors. According to Gross, that means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines rather than out in the desert, lowering costs.

In October, eSolar’s then-CEO told Green Wombat that the company was more interested in being a solar technology provider than a power plant construction company.

The eSolar deal gives NRG (NRG), which operates coal-fired power plants in Texas and the Northeast, a foothold in the California renewable energy market. The first solar farm will go online in 2011 and NRG will have the right to develop 11 of eSolar’s 46-megawatt modular power plants. eSolar currently is building a five-megawatt demonstration power plant in Lancaster, Calif., that is expected to be completed this year.

“By coupling NRG’s construction capabilities and regional operating expertise with eSolar’s innovative … technology, we can advance NRG’s renewable energy portfolio while helping to accelerate development of these important projects on a commercial scale,” said NRG executive Michael Liebelson in a statement.

During a press conference Monday, Liebelson said NRG would be able to take advantage of the 30% investment tax credit for renewable energy projects and intends to apply for federal loan guarantees for such power plants that were included in the recently enacted stimulus package.

The deal, coming less than two weeks after BrightSource Energy signed a 1,300-megawatt power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison, shows that despite the financial crisis the market for renewable energy is showing renewed signs of life.

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California quadrupled the amount of renewable energy it installed in 2008 over the previous year, according to a report released Wednesday by the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

The 500 megawatts of green electricity brought online last year represents 60% of all renewable energy generation built since 2002, when California mandated that the state’s investor-owned utilities obtain 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2010. In November, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order raising the Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS, to 33% by 2020.

“Clearly, 2008 was a turning point for the RPS program and contracted projects are beginning to deliver in large numbers,” the California Public Utilities Commission report stated.

The CPUC in 2008 approved projects that would generate 2,812 megawatts of renewable energy for California’s Big Three utilities – PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE). Impressive numbers but the utilities have acknowledged they are unlikely to meet their renewable energy targets by the 2010 deadline because it takes years to get solar and wind projects online and some will inevitably fail. For instance, the financial crisis has raised questions about just how many of the Big Solar power plants the utilities are relying on will actually get built, though the $787 billion stimulus packaged signed into law Tuesday by President Barack Obama has brightened the solar industry’s prospects.

California increasingly is depending on solar energy to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the state’s landmark 2006 global warming law. According to regulators, utilities received 30% more bids for solar power projects in 2008 than in the previous year while wind farm proposals dropped by half and “very few” geothermal tenders were filed.

The fact that utilities received 24,000 megawatts’ worth of renewable energy bids last year (more than enough, if built, to meet the 33% renewable energy target) speaks to the frothy state of the market. But before solar power plants and other green energy projects can go online they face years-long and often contentious environmental reviews, while a lack of transmission lines to bring all this electricity from the desert to coastal cities remains the green elephant in the room.

Meanwhile, regulators are reviewing a policy change that would seem to undercut the state’s goal of encouraging utilities to generate more renewable energy. On March 12 Feb. 20,the California Public Utilities Commission will consider whether to allow utilities to buy so-called tradable renewable energy credits, or TRECs, from other entities  to meet their green electricity mandates. Such credits are associated with the electricity generated by wind farms, solar power plants and other projects and can be bought and sold. In other words, if a utility finds itself falling short of its renewable energy goals – or just doesn’t want to spend the money procuring green power – it could buy TRECs on the open market.

Green Wombat is awaiting a reply from the utilities commission on whether California utilities could purchase TRECs generated by out-of-state projects – which, of course, would do nothing to reduce the state’s own greenhouse gas emissions.  UPDATE: CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper says that utilities will be able to buy out-of-state TRECs as long as they meet California’s eligibility requirements.

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