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

DOE Secretary Opposes Prop 23

In what are believed to be his first public remarks on the subject, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu came out against California’s Proposition 23 today. Chu said passage of the measure, designed to suspend the state’s landmark climate law known as AB 32, would be “a terrible setback.”
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Nichols: No Solo Cap-and-Trade

Cap-and-Trade is a lonely business these days. But according to the state’s top regulator in charge of implementing it, California won’t go it alone.

Air Board Chair Mary Nichols, flanked by Google Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl (left) and PG&E Sr. VP Tom Bottorff, at a panel sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Mary Nichols, who chairs the state’s Air Resources Board, made the remark in a Silicon Valley panel discussion today. The ostensible topic of the event was renewable energy but it turned into a pep rally against Proposition 23, the statewide ballot measure designed to halt California’s comprehensive climate law, AB 32. Nichols was joined on the panel by executives from Google, PG&E and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, all of whom voiced strong opposition to Prop 23.

When asked about the cap-and-trade provisions of AB 32, Nichols said: “We won’t launch this program without partners to trade with. It doesn’t make sense for an economy even as big as California, to try to do this all by ourselves.” The comment came days after congressional leaders threw in the towel for the summer, on a federal bill to address climate change and energy security. “To get the kind of leverage that you really need to make this program succeed, the US has got to step in,” said Nichols.

California is part of a nascent regional trading pact known as the Western Climate Initiative. But among the seven US states and four Canadian provinces signed on to the WCI, only California, New Mexico and Quebec are prepared to move forward with a working carbon trading market. Others still lack enabling legislation, and Arizona has overtly pulled out of the carbon trading plan, raising the question of how many “partners” California will have, even with WCI in the mix.

“I don’t expect to be faced with this dilemma,” Nichols told me after today’s event, “but if the worst were to happen and none of these states were able to move forward with their own programs, I think we would think long and hard about whether we would actually start enforcing the program, unless and until we were really confident that our  state had the ability to do it in a way that would not put us at a competitive disadvantage.”

Proponents of Prop 23 contend that full implementation of AB 32 will give other states and nations a competitive edge over California, resulting in “leakage” of jobs and businesses to regions with fewer regulations.

The panel, entitled “Electric Bills and Oil Spills: Will California Continue To Be a Clean Energy Leader?” was held on the Google corporate campus in Mountain View.

Poll Shows Support for Climate Law

An expansive new poll on environmental attitudes suggests that despite the recession, Californians are holding fast to their environmental priorities.

Among the findings in the report released this week by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California is that support for the state’s climate change strategy remains strong, even in the face of a well-financed campaign against the law known as AB 32. Two-thirds (67%) of the respondents support the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California–about the same level as when PPIC polled the question last year. 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.

Some “Low-Hanging Fruit” Still Hanging

(Photo: Craig Miller)

California’s commercial buildings suck up more than a third of all the electricity used in the state–and that’s too much.

That’s among the conclusions of a new report from the San Francisco-based think tank Next 10. The 12-page report points out that on average, such buildings could cut energy use by 30% just by upgrading insulation, and another 18-to-20% with more efficient lighting.

Though California leads the nation in its stingy use of electricity overall, the report notes that efficiency standards for new construction are “well below what is possible” and what standards are in place are not met by 40% of new buildings. Study co-author Tracey Grose says that’s partly because even if state-of-the-art equipment is installed, it isn’t always used as intended. There are no energy efficiency standards at all for existing buildings. In general, the study finds that energy use in most buildings could be cut by 80% with some basic upgrades.

The report, compiled by the consulting firm Collaborative Economics in Mountain View, and largely a compilation of existing work, also implies that there’s a built-in way to pay for some of these improvements. The authors cite studies showing that commercial tenants are willing to pay higher rents for “greener” space. The report also cites figures from the Building Owners & Managers Association, that some basic improvements in energy efficiency offer a three-to-one return on investment.

Power consumption varies widely within the commercial sector. Next 10 notes that restaurants are the biggest kilowatt hogs per square foot, followed by supermarkets and hospitals (when’s the last time you had to wear a sweater while grocery shopping because the frozen food section was chilling the whole store?).

According to the report, while raw consumption has continued to rise, efficiency in these buildings has leveled off in recent years. Overall, the nearly 6.8 million square feet of commercial space accounts for 37% of California’s electricity use, compared with 40% for commercial buildings nationwide. The latter accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the report.

Next 10, which describes itself as an “independent, non-partisan organization” has been a vocal promoter of the economic benefits from greening the state’s economy.

Solar Heats Up In San Francisco

The solar industry has descended on the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco this week. Organizers of the third annual Intersolar North America Conference and Expo expect more than 20,000 attendees.

After a period of explosive growth, the current economic downturn has tested the mettle of solar businesses. Demand for products has declined and panels are sitting on shelves in Europe.

It’s expected that the industry will pick back up as individual states, such as California, and some countries, continue working toward renewable energy goals. As Climate Watch and KQED’s Quest science unit have highlighted in recent reports, California has set a goal for utilities to get a third of their electricity from clean sources by 2020.

But to put that in perspective, Germany, a world leader in solar production, hopes to reach 100% by 2050. And the recent move to cut subsidies notwithstanding, Germany might be on track to reach that goal. At the opening session of Intersolar today, Hans Josef Fell, who helped start a photovoltaic revolution in Germany and is a member of the German parliament, says it is that national commitment that has made the difference. Rooftop solar in Germany, for example, covers nearly 20% of single-family homes and, according to Fell, nearly 60% of multi-family homes and businesses have solar on the roof. During the current economic crisis, Fell says, renewable energy has been the biggest job driver in Germany.

Discussion of large-scale solar opportunities took up a big chunk of the first day at Intersolar. Market analysts, utilities and developers gathered on the dais to discuss ways to help “big solar” grow bigger, especially in California. The take-away: the biggest obstacle is not finding land or overcoming a slow permitting process, but updating transmission lines. A representative from SunPower Corporation said interconnection with the grid and more capacity are among the biggest obstacles to moving forward with medium and large-scale solar projects.

Later this week, attendees at Intersolar take up urban renewable projects and the ins and outs of doing solar business in California. The conference continues through Thursday.

A Clean Energy Plan in a Messy Situation


A plan to help homeowners afford solar panels and other energy-efficient appliances is in limbo. In 2008 California was the first state to pass legislation enabling  PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) programs, which provide loans for property owners to buy expensive energy-saving devices. The Obama Administration has supported the plan, granting millions of dollars in stimulus funds for the programs. Cities and counties, once their states have given them the go-ahead, set up programs that issue bonds for the appliances. The homeowners then repay the loans through add-ons to their property taxes.

That’s the heart of the problem, according to letters sent by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to lenders in May. When homeowners default, usually tax assessments take priority over the mortgage when the debts are repaid. But the federal mortgage backers warn in their letters that “an energy-related lien may not be senior to any mortgage.” (from the Freddie Mac letter (PDF); the Fannie Mae letter (PDF) has slightly different wording). The news has thrown lenders into a state of confusion.

According to articles in Grist and a blog post in the New York Times, now cities (including San Francisco) are suspending their PACE programs, and solar installation companies are losing work–and laying off workers.

The first PACE bond in the country was issued in Berkeley, in January 2009. Since then San Francisco, Sonoma County, and Yucaipa, among other cities and counties in the state have begun PACE programs. San Diego and LA have plans in the works. But without more clarity from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on if they will back mortgages given to homeowners who have taken advantage of PACE, it’s unclear if the programs will continue.

Passionate About Panoche

The “33 x 20” series continues today on Quest Radio, with the second of two parts on the proposed Solargen project in San Benito County. The report will be repeated on The California Report weekly magazine on Friday.

Catch up by listening to the first part and reading the accompanying blog post from last week.

PG and E already has transmission lines running along the Panoche valley floor.

PG and E already has transmission lines running along the Panoche valley floor. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

One thing becomes clear when you visit the Panoche Valley and the people that live and work there, everyone is charmed by it. The local ranchers, the environmental advocates, even the biologists hired by the Silicon Valley company that is looking at developing part of the valley for a commercial solar farm.

Thousands of acres of vast cattle land ringed by golden, scrub covered hills make up the Panoche Valley. The area has a vast, open beauty that seems very Californian. But in the springtime locals say it looks like Ireland. The land has also caught the eye of the CEO of Solargen Energy.

The company would like to build a 420 megawatt solar farm that would power about 120 thousand homes. To do so, Solargen would cover much of 4,700 acres of the valley with photo voltaic solar panels. Locals like chicken rancher Kim Williams worry it would change the character of the valley and harm wildlife. A group of local environmental advocates and ranchers have formed a group called Save Panoche Valley.

Kim Williams runs Your Family Farm in the Panoche valley and is opposed to the Solargen project.

Kim Williams runs Your Family Farm in the Panoche valley and is opposed to the Solargen project. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

Solargen, as required by law, has hired a team of wildlife biologists to do environmental surveys of the area which, it turns out, is home to several endangered species. Michelle Korpos, the leader of the team, has also developed a fondness for Panoche Valley where she has been working for the past year. Everyday she and group of biologists march out to the project site, and surrounding hills, searching out fox dens, canvassing creek beds and geo-tagging lizard scat.

Michelle Korpos, along with other biologists, has been hired by Solargen to run wildlife surveys for an Environmental Impact Report.

Michelle Korpos, along with other biologists, has been hired by Solargen to run wildlife surveys for an Environmental Impact Report. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

Charlie McCullough has owned his cattle ranch, one of the biggest in the area, since the early fifties and was born in San Benito County. He is one of five ranchers who has agreed to sell some of his land to Solargen. But McCullough is feeling remorseful that his decision could lead to such a change in the valley he loves.

 Charlie McCullough has agreed to sell some of his land to Solargen for their big solar project.

Charlie McCullough has agreed to sell some of his land to Solargen for their big solar project. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

The only commercial business in town is the Panoche Valley Inn which is not really an inn at all but a bar that serves as a stop for tired ranchers at the end of the day and birders and bikers on sunny weekends. The owner hopes the project’s contstruction jobs mean more business over the six year build out. But even the number of jobs Solargen promises to create has become contentious.

Larry Lopez, owner of the Panoche Inn, hopes construction of a big solar array would bring in more business.

Larry Lopez, owner of the Panoche Inn, hopes construction of a big solar array would bring in more business. Photo: Craig Miller.

One thing is for sure, the valley gets lots of sun, 90-percent of the solar intensity of the Mojave desert. But the Mojave, with its protected federal lands and desert tortoises, has turned out to be a nightmare for big solar entrepreneurs. Listen to our stories on the Panoche Valley which now finds itself in the middle of the debate over big solar. It’s all part of our series, “33 by 20,” a look at the obstacles in the way of California’s plan for utilities to generate one third of their electricity from clean energy by 2020. Here’s a map of solar intensity throughout the U.S.

Clock Ticking for Solar Developers

The “33 x 20” series continues Monday on Quest Radio, with the first of two parts on the proposed Solargen project in San Benito County. The reports will be repeated on The California Report weekly magazine.

Well hidden among the coast ranges of San Benito County, there’s a valley where, as one ecologist put it, “the hammer is hitting the anvil.” Mike Westphal of the Bureau of Land Management’s Hollister field office was describing the current tension playing out in Panoche Valley between two environmental goals: the mandate to combat global warming with a transition to renewable energy, and the desire to conserve the habitat of endangered animals, as well as California’s remaining ag land.

Solargen argues that Panoche Valley is a rare combination of great sun, proximity to population centers, and existing transmission lines to get the power there. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Solargen argues that Panoche Valley is a rare combination of great sun, proximity to population centers, and existing transmission lines to get the power there. (Photo: Craig Miller)

As part of our collaborative series: “33 x 20: California’s Clean Power Countdown,” Quest Senior Editor Andrea Kissack and I have been exploring the effort by Solargen Energy to develop Panoche Valley as a utility-scale solar power array (the state defines “utility-scale” as any facility that produces 200 megawatts of electricity or more).

Like many developers, Solargen CEO Mike Peterson is racing to break ground by the end of this year, in order to cash in on up-front stimulus money from the federal government. He says Panoche Valley presents a rare alignment of attributes for solar power: high solar potential (he says 90% of the Mojave), relative proximity to population centers, and existing transmission lines to get the power there. Peterson told me that the lines already in place have enough available capacity to handle his 420 megawatts of solar power, though a spokeswoman for PG&E says that question is still under study.

Meanwhile, some farmers and wildlife advocates have opposed the plan, saying big solar “farms” are better placed on “degraded” land. Ron Garthwaite, who runs Claravale organic dairy, says “This is just not the place to put it. There’s other places which have no ag value and which have less of a natural value where they could put it.”

Standing at the valley's north end, BLM ecologist Mike Westphal points to where 2,000 acres might be covered in PV solar panels. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Standing at the valley's north end, BLM ecologist Mike Westphal points to where 2,000 acres might be covered in PV solar panels. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Westphal, whose agency is not directly involved in assessing the project, sees the valley as a rare microcosm for the once unspoiled habitat of the San Joaquin Valley, just over the hill. “What we really need to think hard about is do we want to risk ecosystems to get energy,” he told me, scanning the valley from Shotgun Pass at the north end.  “That’s what’s going on here in Panoche Valley is we’re making this equation: how much do we want to risk the continued endangerment or extinction of this ecosystem in order to get more energy? That’s the crux of this conflict here.”

In this video clip, BLM ecologist Michael Westphal gives Craig Miller an overview of the valley, looking south from Shotgun Pass.

Solargen is shelling out for a $1.3 million-dollar environmental impact report, which Peterson says does not include measures such as the two dozen biologists and a detachment of scat-sniffing dogs, trained to track down the droppings of other critters for DNA analysis. The results help determine what species are there. Peterson says the total tab in “preparing and preparing for the EIR” now tops $7 million.

In Part 2 of our Panoche Valley “case study,” Andrea Kissack will have a closer look at the wildlife issues. That report runs next Monday, June 28, on Quest Radio.

As for the Governor’s ambitious goal to have renewable energy sources account for one third of the state’s electrical generation by 2020, Peterson describes the process as “surprisingly harder than you would expect.” He says he ponders how to “get this done in a way that is able to meet the mandates, but also be a good steward to the environment, and try to make people happy. And we won’t be able to please everybody.”

He’s right about that. Dairyman Garthwaite says of the state’s quest for renewables: “Just because somebody in Sacramento says something, doesn’t mean that it can happen–or should happen. I mean there’s all kinds of political things involved in that, there’s lobbyists involved in that. People want to make money.”

Climate Watch intern Chris Penalosa mapped some of California’s larger solar projects in development, below.

View Utility Scale Solar Projects in California in a larger map