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.

Nothing Ill About This Wind

Harnessing nordic winds -- The Middelgrunden offshore windfarm off the coast of Copenhagen

Harnessing Nordic winds: The Middelgrunden offshore wind farm, in the North Sea

Friday on The California Report, Rob Schmitz looks at what we can learn from the world leaders in leveraging wind power.

See the photo on the left? You’re looking at three percent of Denmark’s wind power generation. This is the Middelgrunden wind farm, located in the North Sea, not far from Copenhagen. There, twenty 120-foot wind turbines produce 40 megawatts of wind energy.

I visited Middelgrunden this week in a small boat. Luckily for me, the winds, normally furious at this time of year, were moderate. I went there for a story on how Denmark was able to develop a wind power infrastructure that now produces a fifth of the country’s electric power. This is a larger proportion than any other country on Earth. For the Danes, wind power is big business.

Up until thirty years ago, Denmark was largely an agricultural country. Now, wind power-related exports are on par with agricultural exports. They make up almost 10% of the country’s total exports.

How did Denmark get to this point? The same way Japan became the most energy-efficient country on Earth: the 1970s oil shocks. In the mid ’70s, Denmark relied on oil for more than 90% of its energy. Oil embargoes brought the country to its economic knees. The government quickly instituted “Car-free Sundays,” when Danes were forbidden from driving. Shop owners were asked to turn off their lights outside of business hours. In 1979, the Denmark created its first Ministry of Energy, and it got to work on harnessing what was then considered an alternative energy: wind.

Jutting out into the treacherous North Sea, Denmark has lots of it. By 2020, Denmark plans to rely on wind for half of its electrical supply. And by 2050, the Danish government wants renewables to supply all of the country’s electricity. These are ambitious goals, but Jakob Lau Holst, COO of Denmark’s Wind Industry Association, believes it can be done.

“If you just stick to long-term government investment, you can develop a market for this,”Lau Holst told me today. He told me that much of Denmark’s industry has a hard time doing business in the US because incentives for renewables like wind “are there one year and gone the next. It’s a mixed message to the industry.” It makes one wonder what could be accomplished with more long-term goals–like California’s commitment to 33% renewables by 2020.

Wind Picks Up While Solar Costs Drop

Solar Gain

In green building circles, the term “solar gain” refers to how much a place heats up during the day, from sun exposure. This week marked “gains” for both solar and wind energy development in California. For years, the buzz around solar power has centered on how rapidly the cost of photovoltaic systems would drop enough to make it truly competitive.

Solar panels shade the parking lot at Genentech in Vacaville.

Solar panels shade a corporate parking lot in Vacaville, CA.

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab released its second annual “Tracking the Sun” report this week, which actually tracks the cost of harnessing the sun’s energy in the U.S. It finds that the last decade (1998 to 2008) has seen the cost of installed photovoltaic power drop by 30%, averaged nationwide, although there were some short-term quirks. Among the “key findings:”

Preliminary cost data indicates that the average cost of projects installed through the California Solar Initiative program during the first 8½ months of 2009 rose by $0.4/W (per watt) relative to 2008, while average costs in New Jersey declined by $0.2/W over the same period.

That’s an interesting quirk at a time of generally low inflation and would seem to resonate with our recent report from Rob Schmitz, comparing the “red tape” cost factors between California and Japan (sorry, we didn’t get to New Jersey). Of course in markets, as in climate science, short-term fluctuations aren’t necessarily meaningful.

While the authors surveyed data from 16 states, they note that the results are “heavily skewed towards systems in California and New Jersey, where the vast majority of PV systems in the U.S. have been installed.” So clearly, California is participating in the longer-term trend of declining costs.

Average installed costs vary widely across states; among ≤10 kW systems completed in 2008, average costs range from a low of $7.3/W in Arizona (followed by California, which had average installed costs of $8.2/W) to a high of $9.9/W in Pennsylvania and Ohio. This variation in average installed cost across states, as well as comparisons with Japan and Germany, suggest that markets with large PV deployment programs tend to have lower average installed costs for residential PV, though exceptions exist.

The report noted three incentive programs in California that are encouraging solar installations in new construction: the Emerging Renewables Program, the New Home Solar Partnership Program, and the California Solar Initiative, and confirms that solar has gone mainstream, with 88% of systems connected to the grid. The LBNL report finds that overall, the main driver in recent cost declines has been the cost of PV panels themselves, as opposed to other components that solar systems require.

The report contains a wealth of charts and graphs to fascinate the solar wonk. You can download the 50-page report as a PDF file.

Wind picking up

Also this week, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) released third-quarter figures (PDF download) for large-scale wind energy  installations, logging 1,649 megawatts (MW) of new power generating capacity. The figure shows growth from the previous quarter and a running total of 5,800 MW of new capacity for the year, so far.

California clocks in at third among states with the most installed wind capacity, behind Texas and Iowa–but the Golden State does not place in the top five, in recent growth.

AWEA continues to voice consternation over a longer-term tailing off in wind turbine construction and manufacturing, especially in the U.S:

…the 5,000 MW now under construction is nearly 38% lower than the over 8,000 MW under construction at this time last year. A firm, long-term national commitment to renewable energy is still needed for the U.S. to become a wind turbine manufacturing powerhouse and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

AWEA calculates the total operating wind power capacity in the U.S. to be about 31,000 MW, enough to power “the equivalent of nearly 9 million homes, avoiding the emissions of 57 million tons of carbon annually and reducing expected carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2.5%.” Average power consumption per household varies considerably from state to state.

Unlocking the Grid

Sarah Kass was the program producer for Unlocking the Grid, a collaboration between Climate Watch and KQED’s Quest program, which airs tonight at 7:30 on KQED Channel 9.

Wind Power: A Personal Perspective

By Sarah Kass

Last summer I visited the Netherlands, the original home of the windmill. Surprisingly, I saw hardly any of the quaint structures we associate with Dutch wind power. One hundred years ago Holland had about 10,000 wooden windmills dotting its landscape. Today, barely 10% remain. What I saw instead were high-tech wind turbines, white and spare and gracefully generating electricity with wind from the North Sea.

Many view these modern-day towers as an eyesore, but I see them as a sign of hope. Like giant flowers across a landscape, they symbolize for me a clean energy future. But wind power–and solar–have a handicap that fuels doubts that renewables will ever be more than a small percentage of U.S. power. These energy sources can’t be counted on when night falls or the wind subsides. Their inconsistent nature poses a problem for a world with an enormous appetite for electricity. If only excess power could be stored on a grand scale, it might solve many of our energy problems.

It isn’t that electrical energy isn’t currently storable, but as Andrew Tang, Senior Director of PG&E’s Smart Meter program points out, the current generation of batteries can’t store electricity at a price that’s cost-effective. But both he and Steve Berberich from California System Operators were optimistic about future storage possibilities. Tang described an experimental project that uses a sodium sulfur battery the size of an 18-wheeler trailer. The battery would be located next to a substation or somewhere in the network, and its stored power would be used during times of peak demand. He also talked about the future of plug-in electric cars, whose batteries could both store energy and in theory, put it back onto the grid when the car’s not in use.

Berberich envisioned several possibilities for storing excess power. He proposed converting it to hydrogen, which could be burned in a gas plant or could be used in a fuel cell. And he suggested using power to compress air, which could be injected into the ground and called upon when the wind’s not blowing and the sun’s not shining.

Whatever the final solution to storage, you can guarantee it will be a game changer in the renewable power industry. No longer will wind and solar be looked upon as unreliable. Hopefully this missing puzzle piece will go a long way toward helping us detach from our dependence on fossil fuels. But we’ll still be left with the challenge of getting all that clean, green energy onto the power grid. And you can be sure that environmental concerns, zoning, aesthetics, and cost will undoubtedly be cantankerous issues for years to come.

Watch the TV show online, and view exclusive web-only videos on energy-saving technologies for the home on Climate Watch’s Smart Grid special series page.

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).

Renewables Meet NIMBY…Everywhere

Suddenly, everywhere you look nowadays, prospects for clean, green energy are being muddied by NIMBY* syndrome.

Windmills dwarf a dairy farm in upstate New York. Photo: Craig Miller

Wind farm: Windmills dwarf a dairy barn in upstate New York. Photo: Craig Miller

We saw it first-hand in Rob Schmitz’s series on “green gridlock” in California’s southeastern deserts. Trepidation there turns more on the transmission lines that would have to go up, to connect solar, wind and geothermal fields to population centers where the power is needed.

We’ve seen it at work in efforts to license wave power projects along the West Coast.

In Marin County, it took the McEvoy Ranch nine years from concept to completion, to get one 150-foot windmill up and running, to power the olive operation. Objections from the neighbors forced them to move the site more than a half-mile, and downsize the turbine to three quarters the proposed height and one third the power output (more about this in the next Quest/Climate Watch special, to premiere on August 25).

Now, as James Glanz reports in the New York Times, seismic fears are causing tremors in geothermal fields north of San Francisco.

Glanz writes that with venture funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Google, Sausalito-based AltaRock Energy is deploying “enhanced” geothermal technology to wrest more steam from the earth. But fears over the potential for unleashing earthquakes in the process are not enhancing their prospects.

*For the truly uninitiated: “Not in My Back Yard”

Seizing the Moment

All the hand-wringing about seized-up capital markets hasn’t stopped environmental visionaries from promoting their scenarios for a clean, green–and robust–economy. Indeed, many have seized  the moment to suggest that an all-out attack on climate change and pollution could be just what the doctor ordered.

They’re being egged on by the President-elect, who offered this nugget in a recent pre-election interview with Time magazine:

“…we are just going to completely revamp how we use energy in a way that deals with climate change, deals with national security and drives our economy, that’s going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming, obviously, that we have done enough to just stabilize the immediate economic situation.”

That’s a whopping assumption. Nevertheless the advocacy group Environment California has released its own vision, asserting that clean energy is “the foundation of America’s economic future.” The group’s Blueprint for Economic Recovery and Environmental Protection Through Clean Energy Solutions is not groundbreaking but rather an aggregation of ideas and studies that have been put forth already, leading to the same general conclusion.


The report attempts to bundle the potential of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, coupled with aggressive conservation measures, which it says could alone cut the nation’s electric use by a quarter.

For example, Environment California suggests that we might set aside 9% of Nevada (that’s about 10,000 square miles–imagine Massachusetts covered border-to-border with solar panels) for solar-thermal installations or harness the wind potential of five interior states (the Dakotas, Kansas, Montana and Texas), either one could cover the nation’s entire electric bill. Of course, either of these approaches would require massive, intrusive distribution networks to get the power where it’s needed, so I these ideas may be intended as inspirational, not literal.

Another idea, which requires very little distribution infrastructure, is carpeting the nation’s rooftops with photovoltaic solar panels. The group says that would provide about 70% of our energy needs.

The report also advocates for cutting our oil consumption in half, though it does not specify by when.

How does all this translate to economic redemption? By creating “millions of jobs.” According to the report:

“…repowering America will plant the seeds of economic growth and revitalization across the country. And by creating the world’s largest market for renewable energy and energy efficient technology, we will give American companies a leg up in the most important economic competition of the 21st century – the race to supply environmentally sound technologies to the rest of the world.”

The report cites several studies to support this conclusion. Some were done several years ago and may contain assumptions that don’t quite hold up in today’s recessionary, capital-constrained environment. The more recent work includes a University of Tennessee study from 2006, which projected that converting a quarter of U.S. electric production and transportation fuels would, over about 20 years, yield more than five million jobs.

You are guaranteed to hear a great deal more on this theme, as a new administration takes charge with it’s “number one priority.” Still unanswered is who will provide the capital–and the incentives to steer capital–into the clean, green economy of our dreams.

Photo: Installing solar panels on the roof at KQED.

Renewable Energy Tax Credits Extended

In today’s historic passage of the $700 bailout package for the financial industry, Congess also managed to finally extend the alternative energy tax credits that have been held up for months in legislative wrangling.  The Senate approved incentives last week, and yesterday lawmakers included them as part of a $150.5 billion add-on package to the so-called “bail out bill” in efforts to gain more House votes for the financial rescue plan.  The move will extend the existing tax incentives for the wind and solar industries for that were set to expire at the end of the year.

An article from investment research firm Morningstar reports some of the details:

“The bill extends production tax credits for wind energy projects for one year, and for geothermal, biomass, and other renewable sources for two years. 

The solar energy industry won an eight-year extension of the investment tax credit for commercial and utility-scale solar projects, and an eight-year extension of tax credits for residential solar power installations.”

Passage of these incentives is good news for alternative energy advocates who feared the expiration of these credits might harm fledgling wind and solar businesses and initiatives.

Last month, David Gorn reported a story for Climate Watch about what’s going on with large-scale solar installations in California as the state pushes to meet a plan requiring that 1/3 of California’s energy come from renewable sources.  

 Stay tuned for Monday’s radio report on Quest exploring California’s Proposition 7, which would require more wind and solar energy use in the state.

Wind and Solar Incentives Pass Senate

And speaking of solar power…  After months of roadblocks, the extension on tax credits for renewable energy is one step closer to reality after the Senate yesterday approved the $17 billion package with a 93-2 vote. The credits for wind, solar, and energy efficiency projects are part of “The Renewable Energy and Jobs Creation Act of 2008,” a larger tax bill (HR 6049) that has been stalled in Congress as legislators wrangled over how to fund the credits. If they are not renewed, the incentives will expire at the end of this year, undoubtably having a negative impact on future solar and wind innovation and expansion in the United States. 

You can read more about of the current situation in a piece by Ben Gemen at E&E Daily, but to access the article directly, you must be a subscriber.  For the rest of us, Climate Progess has posted the story here.