California on track to exceed 2020 RE goals, but issues still exist


At a time when petrol prices are rising faster than we can fill our tanks, Michael Picker, the State of California’s Senior Advisor to the Governor for Renewable Energy Facilities, believes that solar generation offers a superior long-term value proposition. "The price for access to the sun is likely to be the same 20 years from now as it is today," Picker told an industry audience, including pv magazine, this week, adding, "Remember, we are not competing with the Chinese for the sun, itself."

Picker was the keynote speaker on March 6 at the Solar Energy Symposium, hosted by CleanTECH San Diego and the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) at the University of San Diego to discuss the future of solar energy in the region.

Last April, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the most ambitious clean energy law in the nation – requiring that the state obtain 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar energy, by the year 2020. To meet his objectives, Brown intends to:

  • Build 12 gigawatts (GW) of localized (distributed) electricity generation;
  • Construct eight GW of large-scale renewables;
  • Approve plans and permits for new necessary transmission within three years;
  • Deal with peak energy needs and develop energy storage;
  • Create a timeline to make new homes and commercial buildings zero net energy;
  • Make existing buildings more efficient;
  • Adopt stronger appliance efficiency standards; and
  • Increase combined heat and power production by 6.5 GW

Picker reported that, in many respects, California already has exceeded its own expectations. Of the 12 GW of distributed electricity generation the state is targeting, 7.99 GW of power currently is online, pending, or authorized.

What’s more, over 16 GW of renewable energy generation was "permitted" during the 12 months between 2010 and 2011 – nearly half of that (7.67 GW), is to be supplied by photovoltaic projects.

In fact, the queue of projects scheduled to go online by January 2017 represents more than double the capacity the state needs to achieve a 33 percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS). In California, he explained, projects are deemed compatible with renewable portfolio standards if they are sized up to 20 megawatts (MW); and either are located within a low-voltage distribution grid or supply power directly to the consumer.

"There’s an imbalance of solar PV," Picker commented, with respect to the permitting. "It is over-weighted compared to, for example, solar thermal (with permits for 2.76 GW)," he noted, admitting, "I thought solar thermal would have a greater percentage of the market by now – but, with the rapid drop in the price of PV, that technology has been able to reach manufacturing capacity more quickly than thermal."

In terms of rooftop and on-site solar, San Diego generates more power from distributed energy – specifically, grid-connected solar panels on residential, commercial, and government buildings – than any other city in California. A study conducted recently by the Environment California Research & Policy Center found that there were more than 4,500 solar installations within San Diego’s city limits as of August 2011, ahead of runners-up Los Angeles and San Jose. Most of the San Diego-based distributed energy projects have been funded by the California Solar Initiative (CSI), followed by the Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), and the Emerging Renewables Program (ERP).

Noting that early adopters of solar generation also are apt to be early electric vehicle (EV) adopters, Picker said it was important to develop the infrastructure for demand response, transmission, energy storage, and the smart grid. "San Diego continues to be a real test bed and arena for EVs, and we will need to supply the power they demand, as well as the energy storage they need."

Another major issue on the horizon will be interconnection, as more rooftop systems become grid-connected. "By 2017, we will be able to hook all of these projects to the grid," predicted Picker. "All of the ingredients are there."

Utility scale

In terms of utility scale, Picker pointed out that nearly half of the projects permitted from 2010 to 2011 were sited in Kern County, California – an area in the southern part of the state that is nearly the size of New Jersey. The county extends east, beyond the southern slope of the Sierra Nevada range into the Mojave Desert and includes parts of Indian Wells Valley and Antelope Valley. Until the recent arrival of solar projects, Kern County had earned a reputation as a large agricultural base; and a significant producer of oil, natural gas, hydro-electric power, wind turbine power, and geothermal power.

Project permits for Kern County at year-end 2011 included 44 MW for biogas, 2.77 GW for photovoltaics, 250 MW for solar thermal, and 4.1 GW for wind.

"Kern County is now the center of [utility-scale] renewable energy in California," Picker stated. "A number of years ago, the town supervisors had a discussion with local oil producers and learned that oil was getting harder to extract; the oil companies had to keep drilling deeper to find it. The supervisors started to worry about losing jobs in the area, once oil ‘went away'. Then, one of the supervisors took a drive and saw a wind turbine at work. He came back and, from then on, Kern was determined to be an energy county."

From that case in point, Picker said, the rest of the state and country should learn a lesson: “"You don’t have to just drift toward the future. Set a big goal and develop power to meet that goal." He singled out two counties that are not getting with the program yet – Riverside, in the southern part of the state, forming part of the border with Arizona; and San Bernadino, in southeast California, an area characterized by thinly populated deserts and mountains.

However, as an energy professional, he is adamant that conservation in these desert and mountain locales must be considered. "We want to help species such as the tortoises and big horn sheep to survive." The biggest roadblock to saving endangered animals, he noted, was the number of agencies involved, "and the difficulty of getting everybody in the same room."

Finally, Picker was optimistic about the pricing of solar projects. "We are starting to see large (and even, smaller) PV projects coming in at ‘price parity', he said, adding, "In theory, the utilities should be agnostic to what type of energy they buy, whether it’s fossil fuel or solar, so long as it’s cost-efficient."

Edited by Becky Stuart.

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