California's Renewable Electricity

In the aftermath of the defeat of Proposition 7, the ambitious citizen’s initiative that would have required California’s utilities to deliver 50% renewable electricity by 2030, where is the golden state in terms of increasing its production of renewable electricity, and what factors are likely to help or hinder implementation of large scale electricity projects in California?

Prior to the election on November 4th, California’s 2002 renewable portfolio standard (RPS) called for 20% renewables by 2010 – a tough challenge at this point since in 2007 California was only up to 12.7% renewable electricity (ref. CPUC). Immediately following Prop. 7′s defeat, California Governor Schwarzenegger issued an executive order calling for the state’s utilities to deliver 33% renewable electricity by 2020.


According to a spokesperson for PG&E, one of the utilities who, improbably, joined a formidable coalition of environmental groups in opposing Prop. 7, “We commend the Governor for taking action to address the long term challenge of developing renewable resources and transmission infrastructure so that meeting a 33% renewable goal may be attainable.”

One of the ironies of Prop. 7 was that environmental groups opposed the streamlining and expediting provisions in the initiative designed to speed the construction of plants because they failed to adequately address environmental issues, whereas the utitities remained concerned that getting to 50% renewables by 2030 was a logistical impossibility, regardless of relaxed siting and permitting standards. Even one of Prop. 7′s proponents, the noted Dr. Donald Aitken, agreed in a recent conversation “they would have to go flat out” just to get to 33% by 2020.

Aitken’s assessment of how to bring California’s RPS successfully up into the 30% range and beyond included some useful insights and recommendations. For example, Aitken pointed out California’s current RPS doesn’t include conversion of solid waste into energy. According to a July 6th report in the New York Times, there are currently 87 waste-to-energy plants operating in the United States, continuously generating 2.7 gigawatts. While these plants are arguably already clean-burning, even more advanced thermochemical and biochemical processes to turn municipal solid waste and construction debris into electricity are moving rapidly forward, as evidenced by pilot plants using various technologies already in operation by companies such as Ze-gen, Plasco Energy Group, and BlueFire Ethanol, or nearly operational, ala companies such as POET, RangeFuels, and Coskata. Given the extraordinary challenge presented by transforming a third of California’s electricity generation to renewable sources, it isn’t obvious why waste-to-electricity solutions aren’t allowed to be counted towards fulfilling RPS goals.

The question of relaxed siting and expedited permitting requirements for renewable electricity generation isn’t trivial. Most of the renewable energy solutions available now – enhanced geothermal is still several years off – consume large amounts of land. Transmission lines also require large corridors of land. Anyone who has ever tried to develop property in California in recent years will attest to the difficulties obtaining permits. Literally dozens of Federal, State, County and City agencies require various permits to develop land – they are never uniform, they are all extraordinarily complex, they take years to complete, they are incredibly expensive, and all along the way there are also a host of powerful environmental nonprofits whose lawyers will throw additional obstacles in the way of a developer. It is almost impossible to develop land in California – a reason why Texas is now the nation’s leading producer of wind generated electricity – in Texas it is literally orders of magnitude easier to develop land in terms of time and expense. If California is to have any chance of achieving their current RPS goals, let alone even more ambitious ones, significant changes will need to occur in terms of what it takes, and how long it takes, to develop land.

BrightSource Energy’s pilot plant.
(Photo: BrightSource Energy)

One large scale renewable electricity plant that is about to break ground is Bright Source Energy’s recently announced Ivanpah Solar Power Complex, using solar thermal technology, and scheduled to begin construction in late 2009. As we’ve reported in our post “Bright Source’s Power Tower,” Bright Source Energy commissioned a 1.5 megawatt pilot plant earlier this year in Israel. Their technology relies on a solar field of two axis mirrors that track the sun and focus the sunlight onto a single central boiler. This results in superheated steam – more easily condensed for reuse – and eliminates the need for plumbing being installed throughout the solar field. Bright Source’s Ivanpah complex, in its first phase, will generate 100 megawatts at peak output, or about 250 megawatt-hours per day.

Another company close to developing large scale solar thermal power plants is Ausra, who commissioned a 5.0 megawatt pilot plant in late October of this year in California’s south San Joaquin Valley. As reported in our post “Ausra’s Kimberlina Solar Thermal Plant,” Ausra’s innovative design uses several single axis, rectangular tracking mirrors to focus sunlight onto a single overhead receiver where water is turned into steam. Having several mirrors share one receiver reduces the amount of plumbing needed in the solar field, and Ausra has also developed a very low cost process for manufacturing these mirrors. Also, single axis tracking of very large rectangular mirrors is less expensive to install and maintain than two axis tracking using many much smaller square mirrors. Ausra may begin construction of a 177 megawatt (peak) solar thermal electricity plant in San Luis Obispo County sometime in 2010.

Ausra’s pilot plant.
(Photo: Ausra)

The fact that large scale solar thermal electricity is here, as evidenced by the projects Bright Source, Ausra, and others are developing right now, is quite inspiring. But if you evaluate exactly how much these two very large plants will contribute to California’s overall electricity production, it is clear how serious the need is to streamline siting and permitting requirements if there is to be any hope of reaching the ambitious RPS goals being set.

California produces, on average, about 800 gigawatt-hours per day. By 2020, even with vastly improved efficiency, because of population growth, economic growth, and growth in all manner of electronic appliances, from consumer electronics to electric automobilies, expect that figure to rise to at least 1,000 gigawatt-hours per day. If 12.7% of today’s 800 daily gigawatt-hours are currently coming from renewables, and the goal by 2030 is to have 33% of 1,000 gigawatt-hours coming from renewables, then about another 228,000 megawatt-hours per day will need to come from renewables. Assuming 400 megawatts for BrightSource’s Ivanpah power complex (taking into account planned expansion), and 177 megawatts from Ausra’s proposed plant in San Luis Obispo county, at a yield of 20%, these two power plants fully built out will produce 2.5 gigawatt-hours per day. It will take 88 times this much new renewable power to get California to a 33% renewable portfolio standard by 2020.

Whatever means technological and political developments emerge to meet or exceed this goal, a few things might be helpful:

(1) Streamline siting requirements.

(2) Allow waste-to-energy projects to qualify.

(3) Move transmission lines underground using HVDC technology.

(4) Require utilities to purchase surplus energy from small scale systems (negative metering).

(5) Be realistic about the costs and flexible in implementation. Californians can’t always afford to pay to be on the bleeding edge.

(6) Partner with the utilities instead of demonizing them – there are a lot of reasons why rapid conversion to renewable electricity isn’t easy.

(7) Lay off the scare tactics – California isn’t going to single-handedly solve whatever alleged global warming problem may exist.

Some Related Posts: Costing California’s Proposition 7, California Prop. 7, Both Sides of CA Prop. 7, Bright Source’s Power Tower, Ausra’s Kimberlina Solar Thermal Plant, Optisolar’s Thin Film, Photovoltaic vs. Thermal, Utility Scale Photovoltaics, Acciona’s Nevada Solar One, Ausra’s Solar Thermal Power, Megawatt Storage Farms.


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