Luring renewable energy is a tale of fits and starts

Back in 2005, Oakland-based BrightSource Energy had what it thought was a bright idea – a solar array in the Mojave Desert that would generate 440 megawatts of electricity – nearly doubling the amount of solar thermal electricity being produced in the United States.

The $1.3 billion project, initially designed to cover over 4,000 acres near the dry Ivanpah Lake on the California-Nevada border, would also help California meet its goal at the time of 20 percent of electricity sold by investor-owned utilities coming from renewable sources.

An application was submitted in December 2007 to the California Energy Commission and subsequently to federal regulators. The project is sited on Bureau of Land Management property in eastern San Bernardino County.

Construction, which at its peak is estimated to create 1,000 jobs, began just over one year ago October 27, 2010.

Along the way, environmental studies had to be conducted. A cooling system designed to use less of the area’s scarce water supply. Lawsuits were filed against the project that are still winding their way through the courts.

BrightSource agreed to pay $44 million to mitigate any adverse impact on endangered desert tortoises. That averages out to nearly $250,000 for each of the 177 tortoises found on the site.

To protect tortoise habitat, the project’s total acreage was whittled down to 3,600 and megawatts generation fell from 440 to 392. The tortoises also halted construction briefly earlier this year as a new headcount by federal wildlife officials required more environmental safeguards from BrightSource.

“You can’t describe it as getting done fast but we were the first ones through this process so it did take a little longer than the project that came after us and the projects we now have before the commission,” said Keely Wachs, a BrightSource spokesman. “But now the state is really making headway.”

Joe Desmond, BrightSource’s senior vice president for governmental affairs and communications, said, “there was a lot of information the commission had to get up to speed on” because it hadn’t sited a solar thermal energy plant in 30 years.

Critics say BrightSource’s sojourn in the regulatory wilderness is an example of the disconnect between the state’s present goal of generating 33 percent of its electricity through renewable means by 2020 and impeding projects to meet that goal coming on-line.

The state says that’s not true. There are enough proposed renewable projects each year to more than meet the 33 percent goal. Applications are being processed more swiftly, applicants and the energy commission say. All nine projects in the commission’s hopper were approved by the end of 2010. The process was expedited in part to receive, as BrightSource did, federal incentive dollars set to expire in 2011.

Now, the Brown administration says, it’s no longer a question of whether California will meet its renewables goal but how long before the 2020 deadline that occurs.

In August, the three largest investor-owned utilities told the Public Utilities Commission they averaged 17 percent of their electricity from renewable sources in 2010. Pacific Gas and Electric was nearly 16 percent. Southern California Edison, 19.3 percent and San Diego Gas & Electric, almost 12 percent.

California’s 40-odd municipal utilities told the energy commission in April that their average was over 20 percent. Los Angeles Water and Power was at 20 percent. Sacramento’s SMUD at 23 percent, Redding at 30 percent and Roseville 34 percent.  The commission has yet to update its website to reflect the higher numbers.

One of the projects often cited as an example of the state seemingly contradictory policies is San Diego Gas & Electric’s 118-mile Sunrise Powerlink transmission line, which the utility pledges will bring 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy from the Imperial Valley to San Diego.

The $1.9 billion project took six years to win approval. The environmental impact report runs 11,000 pages. There’s a 70-page list of environmental mitigation measures for each transmission tower. The cost of running the regulatory gamut is $200 million, the utility says. Although construction has begun, lawsuits are still pending challenging the project.

“The additional requirements demanded by environmental groups make  (Sunrise Powerlink) the most expensive transmission project of its kind ever built in California,” wrote Daniel Coffey, a San Diego lawyer, in a June 23 article in The Daily Transcript.

San Diego Gas & Electric says each year of delay on the project costs its ratepayers $128 million.

And while environmental groups enthusiastically embrace the state’s 33 percent renewables goal for various reasons they oppose some renewable projects.

The Sierra Club, for example, challenged some aspects of Ivanpah’s application. It also opposes Sunrise Powerlink. But the group says that’s the exception not the rule for renewables.

“I’ve got a huge list of large-scale renewable projects up and down the state the Sierra Club supports. I can count on one hand the projects we have raised issues with or opposed,” said Jim Metropulos, a Sacramento lobbyist for the group.

“There’s no disconnect between the Sierra Club lobbying for 33 percent and then saying this project can’t be in this place or that place. We’re working to find the right place.”

Among the actions the state has taken that wins the most praise from the developers of renewable energy projects is the creation of what amounts to a glorified facilitator.

Appointed by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October 2009, Michael Picker remains as Gov. Jerry Brown’s senior advisor for renewable energy facilities.

“Having the governor’s office involved in helping manage the permitting process across agencies was instrumental in moving the process forward,” said BrightSource’s Desmond.    
What Picker did for BrightSource and other renewable power developers isn’t rocket science.

In BrightSource’s case, it chiefly involved coordinating the information needed and the timetables of state and federal regulators. Rather than separate sets of questions for BrightSource from each agency, joint questions were developed.

“After awhile, the process helped the different agencies resolve internal and external conflicts. It became much smoother and more effective,” Picker told Capitol Weekly.
“None of the developers had any less pain or excruciation but it happened in a timely fashion. We met the deadlines for federal stimulus. They had certainty. They could see they were making progress. Not a whole lot less painful but at least there was certainty.”

And that certainty translates into increased private sector development and easier financing of more renewable projects.

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