Author Archives: Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow hosts the California Report for KQED. Over 17 years in public radio, she's worked for Marketplace and KPCC, filed for NPR and The World, and developed a sizable tea collection that's become the envy of the KQED newsroom. She specializes in politics, economics and history in California - but for emotional balance, she also covers food and its relationship to health and happiness.

Life After Wildfire: Studying How Plants Bounce Back

After a fire at a California state park, volunteers used satellite imagery to study the recovery

Henry Coe Park in Santa Clara County is big: 87,000 acres of former ranch land, dotted with oak trees, meadows that burst with wildflowers each spring, and vast stretches of chaparral. Given that Coe is nestled near Silicon Valley, it makes sense that the retirees who volunteer here bring a certain technical bent to their appreciation of the place.

Case in point: the Lick Fire of September 2007 (Craig Miller reported on it for The California Report). Named the Lick Fire after it was first spotted from the nearby Lick Observatory, the wildfire burned 47,760 acres in the Mt. Hamilton Range by the time it was contained, eight days later.

Since then, citizen scientists who volunteer for the park have been paying close attention to see how the burned land bounces back. In particular: Bob Patrie, a former project manager in Silicon Valley, and Winslow Briggs, Director Emeritus at Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Plant Biology. Together, they’ve pored over satellite imagery to document the impact of the fire on various plant communities in Coe Park.

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Major California Utilities Rejecting Prop 23

(Photo: Craig Miller)

While some oil & gas companies are behind it, none of California’s three major electric utilities appear to support Proposition 23, the ballot measure to upend the state’s comprehensive climate law, known as AB 32.

The growing list is a Who’s Who of the state’s electrical grid:

This week, Sempra Energy made it’s declaration against the measure, completing a sweep of the big-three utilities. Sempra is the parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Gas Co., Sempra Generation, Sempra Pipelines & Storage and Sempra LNG. A Sempra spokeswoman told Climate Watch that the energy giant is against 23 because it’s for AB 32.  “AB 32 plays a critical role in helping California develop a low-carbon economy,” she said, and added that Sempra is “heavily invested” in clean technologies, like “smart meters” and the infrastructure designed to support mass adoption of electric vehicles in the next few years. Continue reading

California Oil Refiners Split on Prop 23

A Shell oil refinery in the aptly named town of Oildale (near Bakersfield) back in 2004. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Times today runs down the list of California’s major oil refiners, which are also California’s biggest individual carbon emitters, and finds Tesoro, Valero, and Koch Industries  have not brought along their industry brethren in the fight to stop AB 32 with Proposition 23.

Prop 23 would suspend the 2006 law until the state’s unemployment rate drops to 5.5% or below and stays there for a year, something that’s happened three times in the last four decades, depending on how you count. Continue reading

Rumblings of Another Attack on AB 32

Texas - more than a little interested in California's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s proof positive conferences put on by the Minnesota Rural Electric Association are can’t-miss events. Mark Schapiro of California Watch attended last month, and got a scoop (and I’m not talking about a scoop of Minnesota’s famed butter.)

Schapiro learned the attorneys general of Alabama, Nebraska, Texas and North Dakota are preparing to sue California if the golden state’s landmark law limiting greenhouse gas emissions survives a challenge at the ballot box this November from Proposition 23.

The grounds? AB 32 interferes with interstate commerce, according to Wayne Stenehjem, attorney general of North Dakota (pop. 642,200), giving new meaning to old phrase “the long arm of the law.”

“We are going to test the limits of how much you can constrain interstate commerce in the name of climate change,” Stenehjem told Schapiro.
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Republican Candidates Ambivalent About Prop 23

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Carly Fiorina looks on during a debate with U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer on September 1. (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The e-mail from the Fiorina campaign Friday didn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement:

“Proposition 23 is a Band-Aid fix and an imperfect solution to addressing our nation’s climate and energy challenges. The real solution to these challenges lies not with a single state taking action on its own, but rather with global action. That’s why we need a comprehensive, national energy solution that funds energy R&D and takes advantage of every source of domestic energy we have – including nuclear, wind and solar – in an environmentally responsible way. That said, AB 32 is undoubtedly a job killer, and it should be suspended.”

Political reporters are reading that as a “Yes” on Proposition 23, the state ballot measure intended to freeze the state’s greenhouse gas regulations under AB 32.  But you could be forgiven for thinking she’s not really hot for the prop. Coming out against the state’s 2006 climate law isn’t necessarily an endorsement of Prop 23, since the former can be suspended — at least temporarily — without a referendum. Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has vowed to suspend AB 32 by executive order, if she’s elected governor. Whitman has said she is leaning toward voting against Proposition 23 but has not taken an official position (Democratic candidates in both the senate and gubernatorial races oppose the measure). Continue reading

Feds to States on Global Warming Suit: Back Off

Navajo Generation Station. The place of coal in California's energy diet is shrinking, but that's not necessarily true for the rest of the country. (Photo: Alex E. Proimos via Flickr)

Bit by bit, the US Environmental Protection Agency is moving to limit the gases that scientists say cause global warming. Over five years, the agency is limiting auto emissions and is also requiring new industrial plants to use improved pollution controls

Sooooo, US Justice Department lawyers argue, California, seven other states, New York City and three land trusts should not be suing major utilities, demanding that they reduce global warming emissions.

In papers filed with the US Supreme court this week, Justice Department lawyers argue the authority to curb emissions that cause climate change belongs to the Environmental Protection Agency and to Congress. Continue reading

Keeping the Sizzle in California Solar

Pacific sunset by Reed Galin

Photo: Pacific sunset by Reed Galin

California, as I noted last fall as part of the series “Solar Realities,” has more solar self-generation than any other state in the nation by far. Now, if you ask the folks in the solar division of the California Public Utilities Commission, this state of affairs has a lot to do with three policies:

  1. The California Solar Initiative (CSI) provides rebates to cover about a fifth of the cost of installing solar systems.
  2. Simplified Interconnection exempts solar customers from interconnection fees and the cost of the studies required to connect their equipment to the electricity grid.
  3. Net Energy Metering allows solar power generators, who run the meter backwards as well as forwards, a credit on their power bills at “full retail electricity rates”–as opposed to the wholesale power price.

The policies were designed to encourage civilians to install solar for their own use; not necessarily to create an incentive for thousands of home power plants to serve the grid (depending on the size and location of your home, you may not be able to meet all your own electricity needs, let alone deliver surplus to the grid).

But if you can generate more solar power than you need, why not?

Adam Browning of the Vote Solar initiative, put it this way to the San Jose Mercury News: “Why are we talking about stamping on the brakes when we should be talking about pushing on the accelerator?”

Enter Assembly Bill 560. Net metering is currently capped at 2.5 % of the system’s peak energy demand or “load.” Once the stream of solar electrons coming onto the grid reaches that level,  the utility is not obligated to sign more net-metering contracts. AB 560, courtesy of Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Oakland), would provide some more headroom for that program by raising the cap to 10%.

AB 560 has passed the Assembly. Tomorrow, it comes up before the state Senate Energy, Utilities, and Communications Committee.  No doubt, a staff report due out the same day from the CPUC on the status of the California Solar Initiative will give the discussion some extra “juice.”

Meanwhile another bill, AB 920, from Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), would change the way customers with solar installations are paid for surplus power. As I noted, they now get credited on their monthly bill at the full retail rate. Some of that credit is offset by “regular” power the solar customer uses at night or on cloudy days. Then, at the end of the year, leftover credits are zeroed out. AB 920 would require utilities to pay for credits left over at year-end, albeit at a lower rate–or allow the extra to be rolled over to the next year.

The CPUC, by the way, has come out in support of AB 560, but not AB 920.

The state’s three investor owned utilities dislike both bills; especially Pacific Gas & Electric, which is closest to approaching that 2.5% cap. About 30,000 of PG&E’s 6 million customers have solar systems.

PG&E contends that expanding its home solar program would burden the rest of its customers, who bankroll the state rebates for solar installations. And because solar customers buy less electricity from the utility, PG&E argues they don’t contribute as much as others to cover the costs of transmission and generation.

PG&E has said it would support raising the net-metering cap to 3%–but wants to see a cost-benefit analysis from the CPUC before supporting any further home solar expansion. That report’s due out in January.

There are those outside the industry who share PG&E’s concerns. Framing it as a class issue, the non-profit Utility Reform Network opposes raising the cap unless changes are made to allow non-solar ratepayers to share in the benefits.  Even with the current subsidies, going solar requires an often daunting up-front investment. As green becomes the color du jour for businesses and politicians, an increasing number of projects pair solar with low-income housing. But more often than not, your typical solar-powered household in California is likely to be well heeled.

As utilities enthusiastically pursue their own large scale solar projects, some solar advocates suspect that the companies are really worried that wide-scale residential solar would cut into their income. PG&E counters that state regulations eliminate the financial incentive for investor-owned utilities to simply sell more power to make more money.

All this raises a key question: Without lifting the cap on net metering, can California achieve its goal of 3,000 solar megawatts by 2016?

Rachael Myrow is host of The California Report, produced by KQED and heard on public radio stations throughout the state.

Editor’s Update: The CPUC’s latest report shows a near doubling in the rate of  installed capacity, from 2007 to 2008, and so far, data would seem to indicate a continuing trend this year. Installed  capacity to date puts the CSI at 13 percent of the total program goal, with another eight percent pending.

Solar Realities for the Rest of Us

These are Gold Rush days for solar advocates in the US.  Molly Sterkel, who supervises the California Solar Initiative for the Public Utilities Commission, jokes that she lives in fear that private industry is looking to poach her staff:

There’s a lot of people going to solar companies to work because it’s a really exciting industry. It’s growing so much in California, so it’s attracting some of the best and brightest. I’ve told all of my staff that they have to sign 10-year contracts to work for me but so far most of them have stayed because it’s a really exciting time to be in government, to be able to run the largest solar program in the country.

In 2002, California established its Renewable Portfolio Standard Program “…with the goal of increasing the percentage of renewable energy in the state’s electricity mix to 20 percent by 2017.” Then the Energy Commission bumped the deadline up to 2010, and the 2004 Energy Report Update further recommended increasing the target to 33 percent by 2020.

Whatever the deadline, numerous incentives and rebate programs funded by the state and utility ratepayers are fueling an explosion of solar.  Sterkel says it’s growing at a rate of 40-50% a year.

But installing solar is still not cheap. Even now, all the solar in California adds up to 350 MW (one big power plant generates about 500 MW).

In part, that’s because most of the people taking advantage of the subsidies are residential utility customers, and most of those are installing systems of 4 KWs. That’s not a bad thing, per se.  Any kilowatt that home doesn’t siphon off of the grid is a kilowatt that can be used elsewhere. But slow and steady is a little too slow and a little to steady for some. Never mind that California is way ahead of other US states.  That just makes it easier to compare us to other countries, like Germany and Spain, that have invested even more in solar.

There’s no argument it takes subsidies to make solar financial feasible.  The question for advocates and regulators alike is how much subsidy helps solar thrive without spurring a ratepayer revolt? And how long should those subsidies last?  A report from McKinsey & Co. concludes:

“…regulators must adjust incentive structures over time and phase them out when grid parity is reached.”

Grid parity is the point at which there’s no difference between the price of solar and the market price for (less environmentally preferable) “brown power.”
Sterkel says:

(That) is the point at which everybody gets solar. Just like there was a moment when everyone got a cell phone and everyone got a car. And this year, we’ve already installed more megawatts than we did in all of 2007, and we’re not even all the way through the year. The policies are all pushing towards solar. The businesses are growing. The venture capital is here. You know, all signs point to “yes” for solar here in California.

That’s even though incentive levels in California have been dropping.
Where’s it all going?  Some say we could see a repeat of the 1980s, when oil prices tanked after spiking and green energy projects went “poof.”  It took them well over a decade to begin the long, slow climb back to economic and political viability.  Oil prices appeared to be sliding after a long, hot summer in 2008–until yesterday, anyway.  But green advocates say they won’t be caught out in the cold this time around. That’s because renewable energy advocates can point public attention to something that goes well beyond consumer price protection: climate change.

Rachael Myrow hosts The California Report. She reported on rooftop solar installations for Climate Watch on September 23, 2008. Listen to her story here.