Perhaps the most telling moment at the Governor’s Renewable Energy Policy Conference this week, was when the Governor’s own senior advisor on renewables, Michael Picker, asked for a show of hands. How many present, he wondered, actually thought that California would attain its goal of 33% renewable power by 2020. Amid the 370 or so gathered on the campus of UC Riverside, about a dozen hands went up. How many, he asked, thought we’d make it to 33% by 2050? Another dozen or so hands.
Bear in mind that this was a room containing some of the most knowledgeable people on the topic, from government, industry and environmental organizations. These were people invested in getting there, yet most seemed to doubt that we would.
Their pessimism was not entirely shared by the questioner. Picker told me afterward that he expected about 8,000 megawatts of new power to be approved by year-end. That’s approved, not necessarily financed. Solar arrays that generate 250 MW or more are considered large-scale operations.
Meanwhile, developers are pushing to get major projects approved before the year is out. To qualify for federal stimulus dollars, projects have to break ground this year and spend a certain percentage of project costs.
“It’s a hard state to develop in,” said Matt Handel, a vice president with NextEra Energy Resources. The Florida-based company is already a major player in both solar and wind generation in California, and Handel says the stimulus money is essential for two major new projects that NextEra has in mind for the southern California deserts.
“There is hope,” Handel told me. “It is difficult. There are a lot of constituencies out there pulling in different directions.”
Virtually all of those stakeholder groups were present in Riverside, in some form. Local (especially desert) communities, environmentalists, Indian tribes and representatives from federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service were there.
Identifying the most appropriate sites for large-scale wind and solar plants has been complicated by more than bureaucracy, said Kim Delfino, California Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife. “The landscape we’re working in is already changing due to the effects of climate change, which presents a challenge as to which areas to protect,” said Delfino in a panel discussion.
Picker says he’s “not so sure” that the state is doing the best possible job of moving projects efficiently through the pipeline (to borrow a metaphor from the fossil fuels era), and he conceded that some developers will be left standing in line as the year-end deadline expires. But he calculated that if, over the next five years, 20% of the biggest projects on the drawing board can get approved, the state should make its 2020 goal.