33×20

RECENT POSTS

California: The “Solar Saudi Arabia”

At solar-thermal plants, mirrors concentrate solar energy on a central tower, where steam is generated to run turbines. (Image: BrightSource Energy)

Prepare for a solar building boom in the deserts of Southern California. After spending years in the environmental review process and clearing other bureaucratic hurdles, approvals for clean energy producers are picking up steam.

State regulators have now given the green light to four major solar power projects in as many weeks. The most recent was on Wednesday, when the California Energy Commission gave the nod to a 370-megawatt solar-thermal array known as the Ivanpah project (the CEC does not have authority over photovoltaic or “PV” solar arrays). Developed by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy and built by Bechtel Corp., it will consume more than 3,500 acres near the California-Nevada border, in the northern Mojave Desert. Continue reading

California Fails to Pass Renewable Energy Bill

California wrestles with its clean energy goals. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

It came down to the final minutes before midnight last night for SB 722, the bill that would make law California’s 33% renewable energy goal by 2020. But as the bill’s author State Senator Joe Simitian says, “The clock just ran out. It’s as simple and painful as that.” Continue reading

Climate News Roundup

A few items in the climate news that caught our eyes this week…

1. CEC approves 250-megawatt solar thermal project in Kern County
The California Energy Commission approved the Beacon Solar Energy project on Wednesday. It’s the first time in 20 years that state energy regulators have approved construction on a solar thermal farm, the Los Angeles Times reports.

2. Geoengineering won’t curb sea-level rise, study finds
A new report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that geoengineering strategies to combat global warming by blocking the sun’s radiation would not have much of an impact on rising sea levels, unless the efforts are extremely aggressive. (Read more at Nature.com)

3. Earth’s plant growth fell due to climate change, says NASA
After 20 years of increasing growth under warming temperatures, the Earth’s vegetation   saw a slight decrease over the last decade, according to a new NASA analysis.  Scientists reported they were surprised to find that the negative effects of regional droughts outweighed the positive influence of a longer growing season.

4. Another hurdle cleared for the world’s largest solar farm
Federal regulators are one step closer to approving plans for the 1,000 megawatt plant proposed by Oakland-based company Solar Millennium LLC.  The project would be located across more than 7,000 acres in Riverside County. (Read more at The New York Times.)

Clean Energy from Below

UPDATED with interactive map

Hear my radio feature on geothermal energy and the rest of a five-part collaboration on renewable energy between NPR and KQED, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

It may be a distant second to California now, but Nevada is making a run to become the nation’s largest producer of geothermal energy.

A conventional geothermal power plant at The Geysers complex in Lake County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

California still produces an estimated 80% of the nation’s geothermal power (used to produce electricity*), with more than 40 plants online. But according to a summary from the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) this summer:

“Nevada could become the leading geothermal energy producer in the coming years if growth and production trends continue on their current trajectories. Nevada’s 86 planned or developing geothermal power plants have the potential add up to 3,686.4 Megawatts of geothermal power to Nevada’s energy portfolio, power for 2.6 million homes – enough to meet the electricity needs of 100% of the homes in the Las Vegas metropolitan area.”

GEA describes 14 Nevada projects as being “in latter stages of development.” Meanwhile, says the group’s executive director, Karl Gawell, development in California is slowing down. “Everything’s relative,” Gawell told me in a phone interview. “Projects are moving forward in California, they just take longer.” Continue reading

The Overspray from Prop 23

On Monday, US energy secretary Steven Chu became the latest high-profile voice against California’s Proposition 23, the statewide initiative to suspend AB 32, the state’s four-year-old climate strategy.

“AB 32 was a good bill and continues to have California in a leadership role in developing clean energy and the efficient use of energy,” Chu told reporters at a dedication in Menlo Park. “From the middle 1970s California played that role and it would just be a terrible setback.”

Last week the trend was given full voice by Mary Nichols, who, as chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), is charged with getting AB 32 fully implemented in the next two years, called Prop 23 a “very serious threat,” not just to the core programs of AB 32, but to an array of regulatory programs that support the state’s attack on greenhouse gases. Continue reading

Wind Picks Up Nationally, California Lags

A cluster of wind turbines in Tehachapi Pass marks California's early commitment to wind energy. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Wind power generators added nearly 40% to their total capacity in the US last year, as several states blew past California, according to a new report from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. According to the tally, four states now generate more than 10% of their total electricity (excluding exports) from wind.

Texas is the undisputed leader in the wind race, installing nearly 2,300 megawatts of capacity last year alone. Other Midwestern states such as Indiana, Iowa, the Dakotas and Minnesota have also been aggressive installers of wind farms. Continue reading

Energy Storage: The Holy Grail

A 2 MW battery at the AES Huntington Beach power plant. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

Energy storage is something we’ve come to take for granted in everyday life. Our cell phones, iPods, cars and computers all depend on batteries. But storing large amounts of energy for the electric grid is another matter entirely. It’s a technical challenge that has yet to be met–but will need to be for the coming age of renewable energy.

California’s grid is designed to deliver electricity on a real-time basis. Every four seconds, the grid operators at the California Independent System Operator (ISO) have to ensure that the energy supply meets the demand in the state, something that’s known as “balancing” the grid (you can see today’s electricity forecast on the ISO site). As a result, they coordinate the one piece of the system that they have control over: the power plants. Continue reading

The Biggest Solar Project in the World

It’s just outside Phoenix. No, it’s in the Mojave. Wait, no, it’s in San Benito County.

A solar-thermal array uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight. (Image: BrightSource Energy)

On a media call this week in which executives and investors from the solar industry stumped for extensions to key federal incentives, I heard Fred Morse of Abengoa Solar say that the company’s Solana project in Gila Bend, Arizona, will be, as described on the project website, “the world’s largest solar plant.” Later that same day, an email came in from Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, (not in response) touting its Ivanpah project as “the largest solar project in the world.” Similar terms have been used to describe Solargen’s proposed 4,700-acre photovoltaic array in San Benito County. Continue reading

Intersolar Chair: CA Losing Solar Race

Despite frequent pronouncements by the outgoing governor of the Golden State, the chair of the giant solar industry expo that winds up in San Francisco today says “California and the US are losing badly in the global race” for solar energy deployment.

Eicke Weber of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems made the comment on KQED’s Forum program this morning, during an hour devoted to solar energy prospects.

Weber said that California will represent a tiny fraction of the world’s growth in photovoltaics this year; just 200 of the 10,000 megawatts that he projects will be installed globally. California remains ahead of all other states in the deployment of solar panels. Weber’s forecast for California still represents two thirds of his projected total for the US. That’s “far below what could be expected from a country that’s as rich and sunshine-filled as the United States,” added Weber.

Chinese suppliers had a high profile at this week's solar expo in San Francisco (Photo: Craig Miller)

The global face of solar was impossible to miss at the Intersolar conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Three levels of exhibition space were crammed with industry exhibits. To get there, attendees had to jostle for space on the escalators. Though this was billed as the “North American” conference (following an even bigger one in Europe), the halls included major product exhibits from China, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and other nations. Organizers told the trade publication Solar Industry that they booked 30% more exhibitors than last year for the expo.

While speakers at the conference were calling for more government support for solar and other renewable energy sources, state officials in California were going to the mat to save what’s already in place here. On Wednesday attorney general/gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown said he is suing key players in the mortgage markets, in an effort to save the vaunted PACE program, which finances residential solar projects through property tax assessments. The announcement came even as the California Public Utilities Commission said it was suspending some solar incentive programs for schools and community organizations, after being overwhelmed with applications.

During the Forum discussion, Weber was sometimes at loggerheads with a former colleague from UC Berkeley, where Weber taught for more than 20 years. Weber predicted that rooftop solar could be cost-competitive with fossil fuels within seven years. But Severin Borenstein, who co-directs the Energy Institute at Berkeley, said he considered that forecast to be “at the very optimistic end of the range.”

Borenstein said he was not surprised that the PACE program is in trouble. He said that from the outset, mortgage lenders had been queasy about the program because when properties end up in foreclosure, the banks could find themselves second or third in line for their money, behind counties that finance the PACE energy upgrades.