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Progress and pitfalls in California's clean energy quest

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Reality Check: California’s Ultra-Low-Greenhouse Gas Future

What will it really take to meet the state’s aggressive carbon reduction goals?

As the centerpiece of California’s climate strategy, the law known as AB 32 gets all the attention. But a little-known component of the state’s plan to mitigate climate change, Executive Order S-3-05, is even more ambitious. A new report from the independent California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) takes aim at its aggressive greenhouse-gas-reduction goal for 2050, and shows just how difficult it will be to reach it.

Signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in June 2005, EO S-3-05 calls for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 (a target also written into AB 32 and passed the following year), and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 — effectively a 90% per-capita decrease when population growth is factored in. The 2020 goal sounds easy enough — especially if a third of our electricity generation is renewable by then — but existing efforts, including cap-and-trade, still won’t be enough. In other words, the state has got to come up with even more reductions in the next eight years. Continue reading

Heat and Harvest: Calif. Farms on a Climate Collision Course

The Midwestern corn belt isn’t the only place threatened by climate change

New pests, a shrinking water supply and rising temperatures will alter agriculture in California.

Craig Miller

Tightening water supplies, encroaching pests and dwindling winter "chill hours," vital to many crops, are just some of the climate challenges facing California farmers.

Heat and Harvest, a new series from KQED Science and the Center for Investigative Reporting looks at the multiple climate challenges confronting California farmers. It’s no trivial matter. California’s Central Valley is widely known as “the nation’s salad bowl,” and there’s more than bragging rights at stake. Ag contributes more than $30 billion a year to the state’s economy.

Previously, Climate Watch has focused on efforts in the ag sector to conserve water or lower the carbon footprint. Some farmers are trying new technologies, others are experimenting with renewable energy. But meeting climate challenges on multiple fronts will, for some farmers and ranchers, be a matter of survival.

Here are links to some previous reporting from Climate Watch, from ag’s potential role in California’s emerging cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, to innovation on the renewable energy front and new conflicts over land use. Continue reading

Studies: Offshore Wind Potential is Huge

Harnessing wind offshore and at higher altitude could meet all electricity needs — theoretically

NC State University

The U.S. has lagged behind other developed countries in capturing offshore wind for electricity..

The U.S. has lagged behind European countries in capturing offshore wind for electricity, but a spate of recent studies suggest that a bigger push might be in order.

The latest, from Stanford civil & environmental engineer Mark Jacobson concludes that off the East Coast alone is enough moving air to meet a third of the entire nation’s energy needs.

Running out the string quite a bit further, studies from Stanford and Lawrence Livermore National Lab point to a breezy bounty offshore and at higher altitudes that could theoretically power the planet, perhaps as soon as 2030.

Of course, that would take four million powerful turbines. Continue reading

Grand Plan May Settle the Solar Siting Paradox

Remote deserts would seem to be the ideal place for Big Solar — were it only that simple

Can threatened tortoises and utility-scale solar plants coexist in the California desert? Since the solar rush began a few years ago, results have been discouraging. But an ambitious new plan aims to strike a long-lasting compromise. Northern Californians get a chance to weigh in on the process at a public meeting in Sacramento on Wednesday, September 5.

BrightSource Energy

The sprawling Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is scheduled to go online next year.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan — just call it the DRECP — is designed to establish habitat protection guidelines for dozens of species, not just the elusive desert tortoise, across an incredible 22.5 million acres of desert caught in the crossfire between conservation and clean energy. Continue reading

California Powers Up Plan for Waste-to-Watts

Energy from trash and fewer catastrophic fires? What’s the catch?

California Energy Commission

A wood-burning power plant in Northern California. In 2007, "biomass" energy accounted for roughly 2.1 percent of California energy production. A new state bioenergy plan seeks to substantially increase that percentage.

Wood scraps, animal manure, household garbage and other wastes may soon fuel a sweeping “clean energy” initiative in California, if the collective vision of several state agencies comes to pass.

This week, the state announced its 2012 Bioenergy Action Plan [PDF], which promotes an array of organic materials as a large and untapped fuel source for an energy-hungry state.

“Swift action on bioenergy will create jobs, increase local clean energy supplies, and help businesses grow in California,” said resources agency secretary John Laird in a Department of Natural Resources release. Currently, the bioenergy sector employs roughly 5,000 people and contributes $575 million to the state economy; the agency estimates the new plan could create an additional 4,000 jobs statewide. Continue reading

Fast Lane for California Wind Energy — But for How Long?

Federal incentives can hasten development–or slow it down

By Nate Seltenrich

Craig Miller

Last year brought a fresh breeze for wind energy, and projections indicate that 2012 will be even better. But over the next two years, a variety of forces could conspire to hamper wind energy development across the United States, despite a significant decline in the cost. These are the main findings of a new report by the US Department of Energy and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

It’s that classic good news-bad news scenario: should proponents focus on the fact that in 2011 wind energy became cheaper, more efficient, and more widely distributed than ever? Or should they dwell on the looming challenges, including steep competition from cheap natural gas, inadequate high-voltage transmission in many parts of the country, and the possible expiration of federal incentives at the end of the year? Continue reading

Renters in California May Gain Access to More Renewable Energy

Proposed legislation would make renewable energy available to millions more Californians

Craig Miller/KQED

Most Californians can't install rooftop solar panels.

California’s big utilities are working toward the goal of generating 33% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, but some people want more renewable power, sooner. And there’s a solution to that: generate your own. But for most Californians — those who rent, who live in condos, whose property isn’t suitable for solar or wind installations or who just can’t afford it — that solution isn’t really an option.

Senator Lois Wolk, from Davis, has written legislation with a new solution. If Senate Bill 843 passes, customers of one of California’s big three investor-owned utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison or San Diego Gas and Electric, would be allowed to purchase renewable energy directly from small, independent producers. Those producers send energy into the grid, then customers get credits on their regular utility bills. Continue reading

Nuclear Woes Could Create a Window for Geothermal Energy

Industry looks for inroads in a “stalled” California market

One of California’s two nuclear power plants remains offline amid roiling speculation about its future. At a geothermal energy conference in Sacramento this week, the head of California’s Independent Energy Producers association put the odds of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) “ever” coming back online at 50/50.

Geothermal Education Office

A "flash steam" geothermal plant in East Mesa. Geothermal plants tap the heat energy underground to produce steam for electricity.

The odds matter because nuclear plants provide so-called “baseload” power, which is to say that they produce electricity 24/7 — when they’re on. Geothermal power — tapping energy from underground sources of heat — also has the virtue of being baseload. While geothermal plants can lose potency during the hottest part of the day, they don’t stop producing completely. Solar and wind are considered “intermittent” sources as they’re at the mercy of the sun shining and wind blowing.

At this week’s meeting of the Geothermal Energy Association, there was visible consternation over geothermal being the odd man out in California’s race for renewables, even though the Golden State is endowed with the most geothermal capacity in the nation. Continue reading

Surge in Battery Research Fuels Hope for Cheaper Electric Cars

Revelations in lithium battery technology could mean cheaper batteries and less sticker shock for electric cars

Matt Beardsley

Stanford scientists Mike Toney and Johanna Nelson inspect a transmission X-ray microscope, a powerful device that takes nano-scale images of chemical reactions in batteries while they are running.

Imagine if Tesla, Nissan and GM could cut the price of their electric cars by 25%. That electric dream may be a wee bit closer than you think, thanks to researchers at Stanford University.

Recently a team from Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory announced a new method to analyze and potentially improve rechargeable battery technology in a radical way. A cheap, reliable rechargeable battery is the holy grail for electric carmakers that rely on costly lithium ion batteries for power. Instead of the usual pairing of a lithium compound with graphite, the study examined lithium-sulfur batteries, which in theory can store five times more energy at a significantly lower cost.

“Sulfur is an earth-abundant element and offers the greatest potential to reduce cost,” said research co-author Michael Toney, head of the Materials Sciences Division at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.

Continue reading

Californians Stand By Call for Climate Action

…though most remain clueless about the state’s imminent cap-and-trade program

Craig Miller / KQED

Wind turbines in Solano County. 78% of Californians polled favor federal support for renewable energy.

Much has been made lately of Berkeley physicist Richard Muller’s recent “conversion” to the position that global warming is both happening and stoked by human activity.* But it turns out that the controversial scientist and author has been playing catch-up.

In a statewide survey released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), 60% of Californians polled said that the effects of global warming have already begun. Asking the question in a slightly different way, both the Brookings Institution and the Pew Center for People & the Press found that in 2011, 60% and 63% of Americans, respectively, believed that there was solid evidence that global warming is happening.

Californians took it a step further, however, with nearly three-in-four of the 2,500 participants responding that government should take steps to “counter the effects of global warming right away.” PPIC conducted the survey in July and it includes responses in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. Continue reading