Its First Renewables Goal Unmet, Can CA Meet The Next One?

California may not have met its goal of 20% renewable energy by 2010, but outgoing California Energy commissioner Jeffrey Byron says the state is close, and that California is on track to meet its its goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020.

“We didn’t get to the point where we’re generating 20% of our electricity by renewables, but I believe we do have, or we’re very close to having, all the contracts in place,” he said Thursday.

Byron was at Stanford University on Thursday, speaking at a workshop titled, “Grid Integration of Renewables.”
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Federal Gov’t Eyes CA for Solar Projects

The federal government is recommending 24 areas in six Southwestern US states it says are “best-suited” for large-scale solar projects, both economically and environmentally.   Four of these “Solar Energy Zones” are in California: two in San Bernadino County and one each in Imperial and Riverside Counties, and together they account for nearly half of the nearly 700,000 acres recommended by the Obama Adminstration.

“These are areas in those states which have been determined to have the highest solar potential and the fewest amount of environmental and resource conflicts,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on a conference call with reporters Thursday.

He said that because the recommended areas are likely to have fewer delays related to environmental issues, projects sited there are likely to have a faster permitting process.   The report and its recommendations, he said, will help speed up the implementation of renewable energy projects around the Southwest. (!–more–>

“It presents a common sense and flexible framework from which to grow our nation’s renewable energy economy,” he said.

While representatives from environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the Center for Biological Diversity applauded the federal government for planning ahead for efforts to make the siting of solar projects more efficient, some voiced concerns about the specific sites named as Solar Energy Zones.

Ilene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity expressed concern that one of the areas designated in California, a swath of more than 200,000 acres called Riverside East, contains habitat of the endangered desert tortoise. Another zone she finds problematic is the Iron Mountain Zone, which Anderson says is too far from population centers, meaning that projects there could require the construction of additional transmission infrastructure.

Beyond the specific areas, however, Anderson said what concerns her to most is that the federal strategy leaves open the possibility for solar projects in sites outside the designated zones.

“My concern is that they’re still going to be entertaining applications anywhere on public lands, and that gets us back to the problem that we’re currently seeing which is these renewable energy projects spread willy-nilly across the desert,” she said.

You can see what the recommended sites actually look like with this interactive map that identifies the Solar Energy Zones and provides on-the-ground panoramic views of the sites.

California’s Future Energy Mix

The Quest/Climate Watch series “33×20: California’s Clean Power Countdown” continues on Monday, with the first of two parts on one company’s attempt to build one of the nation’s largest PV solar arrays in San Benito County.

(Image: Solargen Energy)

(Image: Solargen Energy)

With its ambitious 33%-by-2020 renewable energy goal, California will be looking for renewable megawatts from all corners of the state. While the state may hit 18-19% by the end of this year, reaching 33% will require approximately a doubling of renewable power, since the state’s energy appetite will continue to grow in the meantime.

So, where will the energy come from? According to the California Public Utilities Commission, wind and solar will have to carry much of the “load.” Check out the CPUC projections in the charts below.

Series Explores 33×20 Renewable Energy Goal

California has set some ambitious targets for ramping up renewable energy sources. Some say too ambitious. Utilities won’t make the first milepost of 20% renewable power by this year, and many are skeptical that the longer-term goal of 33% by 2020 is doable, either, the executive order signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2008 notwithstanding.

A thermal-solar array of the type planned for southern California. Photo: Brightsource Energy

A thermal solar array of the type planned for southern California. Photo: BrightSource Energy

A major hurdle is the permitting process for large “utility-scale” solar and wind installations, described by the Governor’s own senior advisor as “tortuous.” In the months ahead, we’ll take you through some of the obstacle course in a multimedia series called “33 x 20: California’s Clean Power Countdown.” A collaboration of Climate Watch and Quest, KQED’s science and environmental initiative, the series of radio reports and web features explores the promise and pitfalls of the state’s 33 x 20 plan.

The series begins Monday with Lauren Sommer’s review of California’s clean power legacy and an assessment of the present push. Future reports will look at a solar siting case study in central California, as well as prospects for major development of wind and geothermal sources. California currently leads the nation in solar generation but trails Texas and Iowa in the race for wind power. See Lauren’s interactive map for an overview of how California stacks up against other states in its ambitions toward renewable energy.

Future reports will examine the potential impact of large-scale power generation on deserts and tribal lands and the progress toward what some consider the “holy grail” of energy technology; large-scale storage of electricity. In June, Quest Senior Editor Andrea Kissack and I will team up for a kind of case study in one company’s ambitions; the 4,700-acre photovoltaic array planned by Solargen Energy for Panoche Valley in San Benito County.

Northern California listeners can hear the radio series as part of KQED’s Quest radio service (airs Mondays during NPR’s Morning Edition on KQED and KQEI in Sacramento) or statewide on The California Report. You can follow the entire series and see the related web features as they appear on our “33 x 20” series page.

New Plan: 100% Renewables by 2030

30521491Wind, water and solar energy can provide more than enough energy to power the world, according to a new plan proposed by two California scientists in the November issue of Scientific American.

Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson and UC Davis researcher Mark Delucchi crunched the numbers and have concluded that if the world used existing technology to convert entirely to electricity (and hydrogen powered by these renewables) by 2030, the world’s power demand would be reduced by 30%, from the expected 16.9 terawatts to 11.5 terawatts.  They base this expected reduction on the premise that fossil fuel and biomass combustion are inefficient, losing up to 80% of the produced energy to heat. With energy produced by electricity, only 20% is lost as heat.

Even without this reduction in world energy needs, the two researchers assert that there is more than enough renewable energy available to meet the world’s needs (their data pegs the potential worldwide energy from wind at 1,700 TW and solar at 6,500 TW).  When difficult-to-reach areas and protected lands are excluded from their calculations, the scientists find at least 40 TW available from wind and 580 from solar.   Currently, they find, we generate only .02 TW of wind and .008 of solar.

The ambitious plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, which, when spaced appropriately would occupy 1% of the Earth’s land, and 89,000 300-megawatt photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants, which would occupy .33% of the Earth’s land surface.  The plan also requires 490,000 tidal turbines; 5,350 geothermal plants; 720,000 wave converters; and 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems.  Less than 2% of these energy producing installations current exist.  The plan also requires 900 hydroelectric plants, of which 70% are currently operational.

“I know it’s possible,” said Jacobson. It’s just a question of whether people want to do it.”

Of course, overhauling the entire world energy economy in 20 years is a Herculean task to say the least, and the researchers are upfront about the obstacles their plan faces.   They concede that not only would there need to be significant political support in the form of feed-in-tariff (FIT) programs, taxes on fossil fuels, and significant investment in long-distance transmission systems, but materials availability could also be a barrier in the long term.

“It’s all a question of politcal will,” said Jacobson. “It’s not a technical problem. If we shifted subsidies to things that are clean, that’s being smart. Why invest in something that puts out more carbon and air pollution rather than something that doesn’t?”

The idea of shutting off all of the world’s coal and nuclear plants and building hundreds of miles of wind farms and solar arrays  is controversial to say the least.  Aside from (not exactly minor) political, social, and economic obstacles, there is the issue of baseload power–what’s available around the clock, rain or shine, to keep the lights on–which we currently draw primarily from nuclear and fossil fuel plants.   Proponents of nuclear power like Stewart Brand argue that until there’s a massive storage system for wind and solar energy, renewables will remain supplemental sources of energy.

Jacobson and Delucchi do address this issue in their article. “Intermittency problems can be mitigated,” they write, “by a smart balance of sources, such as generating a base supply from steady geothermal or tidal power, relying on wind at night when it is often plentiful, using solar by day and turning to a reliable source such as hydroelectric that can be turned on and off quickly to smooth out supply or meet peak demand.”

Making Noise Over Wind

Figures released this week by a national wind power trade association would seem to indicate that the expansion of wind capacity proceeds apace. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reported that more than 4,000 megawatts of new capacity has been installed so far this year, a 38% increase over last year’s pace.

Even so, AWEA CEO Denise Bode seems mildly disappointed by the numbers. Citing a slowdown in manufacturing of turbine components, Bode described the industry as “swimming upstream.”

The contrary current may get even stronger if my recent visit to upstate New York is any indication. Arriving for a family visit, I found that I’d landed in the midst of an uproar over wind farms, both built and proposed. Several times a week, articles were appearing in the Watertown Daily Times, about how area residents from around the state are complaining of ill effects from the utility-scale wind farms nearby and bristling at plans for more.

Wind power has hit headwinds in the past over concerns about birds, bats and its effect on people’s views. In upstate New York, the current objection seems to be noise.

Giant wind turbines dwarf dairy farms in northern New York. Photo: Craig Miller

Commercial wind turbines dwarf dairy farms in northern New York. Photo: Craig Miller

At the Maple Ridge wind farm, billed as the biggest east of the Mississippi, I was rendered insignificant by 300-foot turbines, which tower over the farmland in Lewis County. Farther south, in New York’s Finger Lakes region, some turbines top 420 feet. More on this scale are being proposed to stretch out along the St. Lawrence River, which separates New York from Canada. Horizon Wind energy has already erected nearly 200 turbines on Maple Ridge, between the east end of Lake Ontario and the Adirondack Mountains.

Wind companies talk a lot about megawatts and numbers of households served and even tons of greenhouse gases avoided–but not so much about how big these things are. The Cape Vincent-based Wind Power Ethics Group has a graphic on its website that puts some of these numbers in perspective. It shows a 423′ turbine towering over a local lighthouse and the Statue of Liberty.

A truck hauling wind turbine blades navigates a turn onto Route 11 in northern New York. Photo: Chuck Miller

A truck hauling wind turbine blades negotiates a turn onto Route 11 in northern New York. Photo: Chuck Miller

When Californians think about wind farms, they may envision places like Altamont Pass and Tehachapi.  California pioneered wind power in the 1970s and 80s and most of the state’s windmills would barely make an impression compared to what’s going up around the country nowadays. California comes in fifth on the AWEA’s latest list of states with the most aggressive wind expansion (Missouri added the most capacity in the last quarter–New York didn’t even make the top 10).

Later this month, in a radio story for Climate Watch, I’ll look at the implications of this scaling-up as companies propose wind farms closer to populated areas in California, such west Marin County (more about that particular situation in our second Quest/Climate Watch television special, which premieres August 25).