The Water That Fuels California’s Power Grid

How many gallons to run that microwave?

A natural gas power plant in Long Beach that uses "once-through" cooling.

We hear a lot about how green our energy is in California. Instead of using coal, the state runs on natural gas and increasingly, renewable power.

But there’s a hidden cost to our energy supply: water use. In fact, every time you turn on a light, it’s like turning on your faucet. It’s been calculated that it takes 1.5 gallons of water to run a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours.

The way water and power work together is a lot like a tea kettle. Steam drives the power industry.

How Power Needs Water

You can see it at the Gateway Generating Station, a natural gas power plant in the northeast Bay Area. The plant looks complicated but making power is pretty simple. Step number one: burn natural gas. That produces a lot of heat.

“You’ve got 1,700-degree exhaust energy, or waste heat,” says Steve Royall of PG&E, who is giving me a tour through the maze of pipes and compartments. The heat hits pipes that are filled with water and the water is boiled off to create steam. That’s step number two: make steam to turn a steam turbine, which is attached to a generator. It’s the water that’s making the power.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Illustration by Andy Warner.

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Tesla and SolarCity Collaborate on Clean Energy Storage

The companies’ founders don’t just share business interests: they’re also family

Elon Musk is the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and supported the creation of SolarCity.

Elon Musk is well-known in Silicon Valley as the founder of the luxury electric vehicle company Tesla Motors, and of SpaceX, the private space transport company.

What’s less well-known is Musk’s contribution to SolarCity, the solar installer and energy efficiency auditor. Musk inspired–and helped fund–the creation of the San Mateo-based solar company. And Tesla is working closely with SolarCity on a clean energy storage solution that would combine Tesla’s lithium-ion batteries with SolarCity’s rooftop solar arrays. The collaboration makes sense: not only is Musk the chairman of SolarCity, but the founders of the company, brothers Lyndon and Peter Rive, are his first cousins.

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Job and Climate Concerns Driving Support for Large-Scale Solar

For the five desert counties polled, the economy is the top concern, “solar” leads energy choices

When it

Here’s the fine print up front: this survey, conducted during December and January, was underwritten by BrightSource Energy, the company that’s building one of California’s largest solar projects at Ivanpah, northwest of Needles in the Mojave Desert. Private capital for Ivanpah came from Google and from CalSTRS, the state’s teachers’ retirement system. It’s an enterprise that’s been lauded by Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown, by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and President Obama.

But just this week, Ivanpah came under fire in a Los Angeles Times story boldly titled “Sacrificing the Desert to Save the Earth.” BrightSource took to its own website to refute the charge that their utility-scale solar effort is responsible for “razing the desert” and pointed to their “low impact design,” a native plant nursery on site and a “Head Start” program for juvenile desert tortoises.

All that said, the phone survey conducted by Probolsky Research, LLC and released today by Vote Solar, a non-profit advocacy group, shows jobs and the economy leading the list of concerns among 52.3 percent of those polled, horse lengths ahead of a host of other woes which only garnered single-digit responses, including “environmental issues.” Only 5.5 percent put that at the top of the list. Continue reading

SoCal Shines Brightest in Solar Rankings

The Bay Area likes to tout its clean, green reputation, but when it comes to installing solar, Southern California shines brightest. San Diego and Los Angeles lead the state in rooftop solar installations, according to a report released today by Environment California’s Research & Policy Center.

Rooftop solar panels on a home in Oakland.

San Jose comes in third with more than 2,700 rooftop installations, while San Francisco comes in fourth with more than 2,400 (though it’s fifth in terms of overall capacity). San Diego leads with 4,500-plus installations producing almost 37 megawatts of electricity.

“I think the story with San Diego is that the city was an early and very consistent adopter of solar power,” says Michelle Kinman, clean energy advocate with Environment California Research & Policy Center. “San Diego also has a really well coordinated working relationship between the local elected officials, the utility, the solar industry and the advocacy community.” Continue reading

Making Hay While the Sun Shines: A Flap over Solar Panels in Farm Country

The same things that make the San Joaquin Valley ideal for growing crops, plenty of sun and land, is also attracting large-scale solar power developers.

Hear the companion radio feature Wednesday morning, on The California Report.

Aaron Barcellos and his yellow lab, Maddox. Barcellos hopes to plant rows of pomegranate trees next to rows of solar panels.

Farmer Aaron Barcellos bristles at the idea that putting solar panels on his land is “paving it over,” as some critics have contended. Harvesting electrons, he says, is not the same as pouring concrete to build houses or a shopping center. Solar isn’t permanent: he can simply pull out the posts holding up the panels when he wants to plow the land under again. In the meantime, using a small part of his farm to generate power for the grid is a good way to bring in some guaranteed income, helping him weather the ups and downs of drought and crop prices.

But on Barcellos’s farm, the ground closest to a PG&E substation is considered “prime” farmland. That means he has to get permission from county supervisors to take his land out of the Williamson Act, which gives farmers a tax break for keeping prime farmland in agriculture. I explore that controversy in my radio story on today’s California Report.

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End is Near for Solar Tax Credit

Solar companies in the Bay Area are asking Congress to extend a popular renewable energy tax program that expires at the end of the year.

The 1603 program reimburses companies for a portion of the cost of installing solar projects.

Solar companies benefit from a 30 percent tax credit, but there’s a problem: most companies developing solar projects don’t have enough income to take the deduction. That’s where the 1603 treasury grant program comes in. It gives companies a cash grant up front in place of the tax credit.

“This program really was a fix that brought liquidity back to the market and enabled developers to move forward with their projects,” said Arno Harris, the CEO of Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco-based solar developer. “It’s definitely going to have an impact, if it’s not extended, on our appetite to continue investing in the US solar market.”

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California Hits Solar Energy Milestone

Homeowners and businesses have now installed one gigawatt of roof-top solar panels, according to a report released this week by the advocacy group Environment California.

A gigawatt – or a thousand megawatts – is enough energy for about 600,000 homes. Only five nations — let alone states — including Germany and Japan, have reached that level. “Even in a bad economy, the solar industry has been growing exponentially by 40 percent per year,” says Michelle Kinman of Environment California. Continue reading

A Sneak Peek at “World’s Biggest” Solar Project

Construction of one of three planned solar thermal towers at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, Ivanpah Dry Lake, CA

Construction of the Ivanpah site is reportedly on-schedule for completion in 2013

The National Clean Energy Summit 4.0 opens in Las Vegas on Tuesday, bringing policy makers and industry leaders from around the country together to “chart the course for the future of energy in America.” It’s also attracting lots of media, which is why on Monday Oakland-based BrightSource Energy opened the gates to the construction site of its 3,500 acre Ivanpah Solar Complex, which lies just over the California border, 45 minutes southwest of the Las Vegas Strip.

About 15 reporters donned hard hats and safety goggles in 100-plus temperatures to tour the active construction site in the Mojave Desert, along with officials from BrightSource, San Francisco-based construction company Bechtel Corp., and NRG Energy, which, along with Google, is the project’s main investor. Continue reading

Clean Energy Target Still Unmet, PG&E Signs More Renewables

California’s three big utilities have another two years to reach their mandated target of having 20% of their electricity generated from renewable sources, and today PG&E announced two new deals that could inch the company closer to that goal:

  • Wind:  An agreement with NextEra Energy Resources, for 25 years of wind power from the company’s 163 megawatt North Sky River project in Tehachapi, CA.  PG&E says the energy from this project could meet the needs of about 90,000 typical homes.
  • Solar:  A 25-year contract with Sempra Generation for 150 megawatts of solar power from an expansion of the Copper Mountain Solar complex near Boulder City, NV.  Just under 2/3 of that power is expected online in 2013, with the remainder available by 2015. Ultimately, the company says, this project could power 45,000 homes.
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Roofing It: Brown Stumps for Distributed Solar

Governor Brown moves forward with plans to encourage more local solar generation in the state.

California has been on something of a solar frenzy recently, approving permits for more than 4,000 megawatts of new solar power in 2010 alone. Most of that is in the form of large, industrial-scale installations, which will provide lots of power, but also will require transmission infrastructure to get the clean energy from the desert sun to where its needed, primarily, the coastal cities.

This week Governor Jerry Brown is focusing on the other kind of renewable energy: the local kind that is smaller in scale and doesn’t require transmission to get where it’s needed. Continue reading