NEWS Surge in Renewables Remakes California’s Energy Landscape




Thanks to favor­able geog­ra­phy, inno­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment poli­cies, and busi­nesses that see the ben­e­fits of clean energy invest­ments, Cal­i­for­nia is clos­ing in on its goal of gen­er­at­ing a third of its elec­tric­ity from renew­ables by 2020.

by Cheryl Katz

Solar farms are bloom­ing across California’s deserts, wind tur­bines are climb­ing the Sierra, pho­to­voltaic roofs are shim­mer­ing over sub­urbs, and Tes­las are the Sil­i­con Val­ley elite’s new ride. A clean energy rush is trans­form­ing the Golden State so quickly that nearly a quar­ter of its elec­tric­ity now comes from renew­able sources, and new facil­i­ties, espe­cially solar, are com­ing online at a rapid rate. Last year, Cal­i­for­nia became the first state to get more than 5 per­cent of its elec­tric­ity from the sun.

With its goal of 33 per­cent renew­able energy by 2020 now within reach, Gov­er­nor Jerry Brown recently raised California’s bar, order­ing the state to cut its green­house gas emis­sions to 40 per­cent below the 1990 level within the next 15 years — the most ambi­tious tar­get in North Amer­ica. To meet the new direc­tive, plan­ners say Cal­i­for­ni­ans will need to step up their energy

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System

Ethan Miller/​Getty Images
Ivan­pah Solar Elec­tric Gen­er­at­ing Sys­tem in the Cal­i­for­nia Mojave Desert was com­pleted in 2014.

tran­si­tion even more: dou­bling energy effi­ciency, boost­ing elec­tric trans­porta­tion, and get­ting at least twice as much of their elec­tric­ity from renew­ables. Energy experts cau­tion that it will take effort, but they say it’s doable.

It’s dif­fi­cult to remem­ber that just 15 years ear­lier the state was expe­ri­enc­ing an energy melt­down. Elec­tric­ity prices sky­rock­eted, sup­ply crashed and black­outs rolled, due mainly to a dis­as­trous dereg­u­la­tion attempt and unscrupu­lous mar­ket manip­u­la­tion. Fast-​​forward to 2014, and the state’s renew­able capac­ity grew to an esti­mated 21,000 megawatts, includ­ing more utility-​​scale solar than all the rest of the states com­bined.

So how did Cal­i­for­nia go from chaos to clean power leader in such a short time? And where does it go from here?

Fif­teen years out of a cri­sis — that’s kind of unprece­dented,” said Pro­fes­sor Daniel Kam­men, direc­tor of the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. “For the world’s seventh-​​biggest econ­omy, to be in such a solid and good cli­mate posi­tion in a decade and a half is remarkable.”

California’s phoenix act stems from a com­bi­na­tion of favor­able geog­ra­phy, inno­v­a­tive poli­cies, and busi­nesses that saw the ben­e­fits of clean energy invest­ments, Kam­men said. Reel­ing off a list of Cal­i­for­nia solar com­pa­nies, he said, “All of these com­pa­nies are cre­at­ing wealth … and that is the most fun­da­men­tal part of the whole equation.”

With bipar­ti­san sup­port, state leg­is­la­tors a decade ago enacted an ambi­tious Renew­ables Port­fo­lio Stan­dard requir­ing that 33 per­cent of elec­tric­ity sold in Cal­i­for­nia come from renew­able sources by 2020. Gov­er­nor Brown has called for that goal to be raised to 50 per­cent by 2030, and his admin­is­tra­tion has expanded efforts to boost energy effi­ciency and

Com­mer­cial facil­i­ties in the state gen­er­ate enough clean elec­tric­ity to power 7 mil­lion homes.

to sig­nif­i­cantly increase the use of elec­tric vehi­cles and renew­ables, among other measures.

Wind energy pro­duc­tion has dou­bled since 2009, and today Cal­i­for­nia gen­er­ates nearly 6,400 megawatts of wind power, pro­vid­ing around 7 per­cent of the state’s elec­tric­ity. Mas­sive new solar farms are also com­ing online, includ­ing two 550-​​megawatt pho­to­voltaic plants added last year. By the end of 2014, Cal­i­for­nia had roughly 5,400 megawatts of utility-​​scale solar installed and sev­eral more facil­i­ties, includ­ing a new 579 megawatt plant, are slated to open by the end of next year. Cal­i­for­nia also leads the nation in small dis­trib­uted, or “rooftop,” solar, with more than 2,300 megawatts now installed, and ana­lysts pre­dict con­tin­ued strong growth through 2016.

On top of that, the state has ample geot­her­mal energy pro­duc­tion, with expan­sion on the way. All told, accord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Energy Com­mis­sion, com­mer­cial renew­able energy facil­i­ties in the state, includ­ing small hydropower, now gen­er­ate enough clean elec­tric­ity to power more than 7 mil­lion Cal­i­for­nia homes — and that doesn’t include home solar and other smaller, on-​​site production.

The push toward renew­ables has bumped up elec­tric­ity prices — Cal­i­for­ni­ans pay around 14 cents per kilo­watt hour across all sec­tors, com­pared to a lit­tle over 10 cents nation­wide, accord­ing to 2015 fig­uresfrom the U.S. Energy Infor­ma­tion Agency. But thanks to a mild cli­mate and suc­cess­ful energy effi­ciency pro­grams, res­i­dents’ monthly bills are actu­ally among the low­est in the nation — Cal­i­for­ni­ans rank 49th in energy use and 46th in per-​​person spend­ing on electricity.

But as California’s clean power goals rise, new capac­ity could begin to slow. Some planned large projects are now on hold due to finan­cial prob­lems. Oth­ers face envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges, such as threats to bird fly­ways and desert habi­tats. Large-​​scale solar plants, par­tic­u­larly those using solar ther­mal tech­nol­ogy, are los­ing appeal to investors as pho­to­voltaic panel prices plunge. And util­i­ties, hav­ing largely reached their cur­rent renew­able pro­cure­ment tar­gets, have few new projects in the pipeline. What’s more, the fed­eral solar invest­ment tax credit pro­gram for new util­ity projects drops from 30 per­cent to 10 per­cent after 2016, and ends com­pletely for individuals.

Apple and Google have recently announced they are devel­op­ing their own grid-​​scale renew­able energy projects.

Despite these obsta­cles, a num­ber of enter­pris­ing alter­na­tives are emerging.

In the past few months, both Apple and Google have announced they are devel­op­ing their own grid-​​scale renew­able energy projects. Apple is part­ner­ing with First­So­lar to build a 280-​​megawatt solar farm not far from its Sil­i­con Val­ley head­quar­ters. The facil­ity, slated for com­ple­tion next year, will power all Apple stores in Cal­i­for­nia, as well as the company’s offices and a large data cen­ter — plus deliver 150 megawatts to the grid. Not to be out­done, Google has bought into a wind project to power its huge Moun­tain View cam­pus. The com­pany plans to replace out­dated tur­bines that are inef­fi­cient and haz­ardous to birds with fewer, higher-​​efficiency, bird-​​friendly machines.

Another new approach is designed to stim­u­late small, local renew­able energy projects. Under this pro­gram, Com­mu­nity Choice Aggre­ga­tion (CCA), cities and coun­ties con­tract with renew­able energy pro­duc­ers to tai­lor their own clean energy sup­ply. Elec­tric­ity is still deliv­ered through the area util­ity, which charges a trans­mis­sion fee, but res­i­dents can choose whether to receive up to 100 per­cent clean energy from the CCA.

The state’s first CCA, Marin Clean Energy, opened in 2010 and now serves about 165,000 cus­tomers. The pro­gram keeps costs down by buy­ing directly from sev­eral small, local energy projects it helped develop, includ­ing a solar panel array on city air­port hangars and bio­gas from a county land­fill, as well as agree­ments with com­mer­cial solar, wind, and geot­her­mal producers.

California’s green energy aggre­ga­tion model is now spread­ing to other states, includ­ing one start­ing up this sum­mer in New York’s Westch­ester County. The Los Angeles-​​area city of Lan­caster this month launched its own CCA, which, along with Sonoma County, brings California’s total to three, with more in progress.

In a tes­ta­ment to clean energy’s bipar­ti­san appeal in Cal­i­for­nia, Lancaster’s Repub­li­can mayor, R. Rex Par­ris, dreams of mak­ing his city “the Sil­i­con Val­ley of Clean Energy.” His ini­tia­tives include requir­ing solar pan­els on all new homes in this fast-​​growing com­mu­nity and lur­ing an elec­tric bus man­u­fac­turer to town.

We’ll be net-​​zero this year,” Par­ris said, enthu­si­as­ti­cally. “We’ll be pro­duc­ing more elec­tric­ity than we use.”

In addi­tion to slow­ing global warm­ing — a cause Par­ris con­sid­ers crit­i­cal — he said becom­ing a clean energy com­mu­nity makes fis­cal sense. The CCA’s

A mas­sive influx of new energy threat­ens to over­whelm the cur­rent trans­mis­sion system.

direct pur­chase from solar farms will save Lan­caster users 15 to 30 per­cent on their energy bills, he said.

The free mar­ket is work­ing,” Par­ris said. “There are my Repub­li­can principles!”

California’s three large investor-​​owned util­i­ties will soon begin offer­ing clean power choices as well. Under a state com­mu­nity solar devel­op­ment man­date, they’ll be required to pur­chase renew­able energy from small, local pro­duc­ers in an effort to encour­age such endeav­ors and let cus­tomers choose their own energy mix.

Mean­while, unlikely allies from uni­ver­si­ties to county dumps are band­ing together and tak­ing a new look around their prop­er­ties, with an eye to unused space that can be repur­posed for clean energy pro­duc­tion. Ear­lier this month, stand­ing on a closed land­fill near San Fran­cisco Bay slated to sport 19,000 solar pan­els by next year, U.S. EPA admin­is­tra­tor Gina McCarthy said she hopes a pio­neer­ing Regional Renew­able Energy Pro­cure­ment arrange­ment by a group of pub­lic agen­cies will become a national model. Under that ini­tia­tive, solar pan­els will be installed at 186 sites such as fire sta­tions, city halls, libraries, col­lege cam­puses, and san­i­tary dis­tricts across four north­ern Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties to pro­duce energy than can be fed into the grid.

California’s energy tran­si­tion still faces some daunt­ing obsta­cles. A mas­sive influx of new energy threat­ens to over­whelm the cur­rent trans­mis­sion sys­tem. The spo­radic nature of wind and solar poses a spe­cial chal­lenge. In addi­tion, the remote loca­tion of many new energy pro­duc­ers means the state will have to extend elec­tri­cal wires.

The grid is already start­ing to expe­ri­ence over­sup­ply episodes when wind and solar pro­duce unex­pected bursts of power, which forces the grid to shut down its energy feeds, said Steven Green­lee, a spokesman for the Cal­i­for­nia Inde­pen­dent Sys­tem Oper­a­tor (CAISO), the state’s util­ity reg­u­la­tor. That wastes energy.

To address these prob­lems and achieve California’s goals for a new energy future, CAISO envi­sions fleets of pri­vate and mass-​​transit elec­tric vehi­cles that serve as bat­ter­ies on wheels — plug­ging in and soak­ing up excess current

Promis­ing new tech­nolo­gies, includ­ing more effi­cient pho­to­voltaic cells that can har­vest energy across the light spec­trum, have the poten­tial to dra­mat­i­cally increase solar power gen­er­a­tion in the next two decades. But major hur­dles remain.

When the load gets too high, and feed­ing it back into the grid through spe­cial charg­ing sta­tions when sup­ply drops. The plan also calls for retro­fitting the state’s slug­gish old con­ven­tional power plants or build­ing new ones that can ramp up pro­duc­tion quickly when the sun sets or the wind dies, then stop when these sources become active.

A third com­po­nent — a regional electricity-​​sharing grid where Cal­i­for­nia and its neigh­bors can cut costs and increase effi­ciency by offload­ing sur­plus or acquir­ing extra within min­utes of peak demand — was launched last year. So far, West­ern Energy Imbal­ance Mar­ket mem­bers include parts of Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Utah, and Wyoming, in addi­tion to California.

Reach­ing the state’s aggres­sive new energy tar­get likely will raise costs. A recent study by the con­sult­ing firm Energy+Environmental Eco­nom­ics and Lawrence Berke­ley National Lab­o­ra­tory esti­mated that the steps needed would add an aver­age of $14 to monthly house­hold bills. But Berke­ley energy pro­fes­sor Kam­men points out that the effort also will spur inno­va­tion, stim­u­late the econ­omy, and cre­ate jobs.

Lan­caster Mayor Par­ris agrees. “Once you release the cre­ative forces like that,” he said, “it doesn’t stop.”

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