Mapping Out Solar Power Hotspots

Somewhat overtaken by the other headlines of the week, dominated by celebrity obits and California’s financial meltdown, was the release by federal agencies of some new solar maps. They pinpoint federal lands in seven western states that present–in the government’s view–some of the best potential for building out utility-scale solar power production.

The four California locations (.pdf link) combine more than 350,000 acres in San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial Counties. They supposedly represent the best combination of production potential, least conflict with other land uses and environmental concerns, and proximity to existing transmission lines or power plants. Areas were also mapped in neighboring Nevada and Arizona.

Update: Scott Streater has more on the controversy over planned renewable power sites, including California’s Iron Mountain site (see map, below),  in a New York Times Greenwire post.

All California locations are on BLM property in the state's southeastern deserts. Image: DOE/BLM

All California locations are on BLM property in the state's southeastern deserts. Image: DOE/BLM

The maps appeared just as California’s main regulator of power companies issued an update on solar projects in the state. The California Public Utilities Commission reported that the rate of new solar installations nearly doubled last year, from 2007 levels.

The CPUC tally shows California with over 500 MW of solar photovoltaic (PV) connected to the electric grid at almost 50,000 customer sites. The report notes that all those electrons combined are equivalent to one large power plant. About half of the current total went in under the California Solar Initiative, which has reached 13% of it’s 10-year goal, with another 8% in pending applications.

Also this week, more than $300 million fell from the federal money tree for a hydrogen power project in southern California. Cash from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the federal stimulus plan) will flow to the Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) project in Bakersfield. The project is designed to provide power for 150,000 homes in the area, by converting oil to hydrogen.

A statement from the California Recovery Task Force (CRTF), a conduit for federal stimulus funds, describes the HECA project as “an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle power plant that will take petroleum coke, biomas, coal or blends of each, combined with non-potable water to convert them into hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2). The hydrogen gas will be used to fuel a net 250-megawatt power station.”

Perhaps more significant are the plans for the carbon dioxide generated in burning the oil. The CRTF statement says that “The CO2 will be transported by pipeline to nearby oil reservoirs and injected for permanent storage which will enhance U.S. energy security and enable additional production from existing California oilfields.”

CRTF says the project will “avoid” emissions of more than two million tons of greenhouse gases per year.

Speed Bumps on the “Hydrogen Highway”

Seems like the Governor is spending a lot of time looking at cars lately. If the rest of us spent as much time cruising Auto Row, the recession might already be fading in the rear-view mirror.

Governor Schwarzenegger tries out the Volkswagen Passat Lingyu. Photo: Governor's Office

Governor Schwarzenegger at the wheel of a Volkswagen Passat Lingyu. Photo: Governor's Office

But California’s chief executive isn’t interested in run-of-the-mill rolling stock (he will, of course, happily take credit for inventing the Hummer). He’s into exotics: the alternative-fuel cars of the future–and in some cases, present.

At least five times in the last three weeks, the Governor’s Office has created photo ops with alt-fuel autos, prototypes or refueling stations; from a fuel-cell Volkswagen (June 3) to the Mutt-&-Jeff of electrics, Hummer and Peapod (May 28 & June 10, respectively), he’s kicked the tires on a whole generation of not-widely-available wheels–not to mention the home ethanol refinery (June 4) or the hydrogen refueling station in Santa Monica (May 27).

All of which got us to wondering: “Dude, where’s our Hydrogen Highway?” You may recall the Governor’s promise five years ago, that California would by now be coming down the home stretch on a whole new infrastructure for the coming swarm of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Monday morning on KQED’s weekly Quest radio feature, David Gorn reports that we’ve apparently hit a few speed bumps:

“The technology clearly has promise, but it’s behind schedule. Schwarzenegger’s original plan called for 100 to 150 hydrogen fuel stations by next year, and so far there are only about two dozen. He also wanted 2,000 hydrogen-powered cars on the road, yet fewer than 200 are being road-tested today. The lack of progress has prompted California’s non-partisan state legislative analyst to recommend scrapping state funding for the hydrogen program. And on the federal level, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has asked Congress to cut about half of the national hydrogen-research budget. Chu said hydrogen technology is too far from fruition.”

None of these details stopped Governor  Schwarzenegger from hyping the 2009 Hydrogen Road Tour, a recently concluded San Diego-to-Vancouver rally, designed to highlight fuel-cell technology:

“We will keep pushing, and thanks to our public-private partnerships and the commitment of these automakers and energy companies, the era of pollution-free transportation is dawning.”

The Governor’s statement went on to say that “Auto manufacturers expect the number of hydrogen vehicles to increase to 4,300 by 2014 and more than 40,000 vehicles by 2017.” Of course, that was before Energy Secretary Steve Chu announced that R&D funding for hydrogen fuel cells on the road didn’t quite make the cut for the next DOE budget. Plug-in hydrid, anyone?