26 May 2015: Report

Surge in Renewables Remakes
California’s Energy Landscape

Thanks to favorable geography, innovative government policies, and businesses that see the benefits of clean energy investments, California is closing in on its goal of generating a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020.

by cheryl katz

Solar farms are blooming across California’s deserts, wind turbines are climbing the Sierra, photovoltaic roofs are shimmering over suburbs, and Teslas are the Silicon Valley elite’s new ride. A clean energy rush is transforming the Golden State so quickly that nearly a quarter of its electricity now comes from renewable sources, and new facilities, especially solar, are coming online at a rapid rate. Last year, California became the first state to get more than 5 percent of its electricity from the sun.

With its goal of 33 percent renewable energy by 2020 now within reach, Governor Jerry Brown recently raised California’s bar, ordering the state to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below the 1990 level within the next 15 years — the most ambitious target in North America. To meet the new directive, planners say Californians will need to step up their energy
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the California Mojave Desert was completed in 2014.
transition even more: doubling energy efficiency, boosting electric transportation, and getting at least twice as much of their electricity from renewables. Energy experts caution that it will take effort, but they say it’s doable.

It’s difficult to remember that just 15 years earlier the state was experiencing an energy meltdown. Electricity prices skyrocketed, supply crashed and blackouts rolled, due mainly to a disastrous deregulation attempt and unscrupulous market manipulation. Fast-forward to 2014, and the state’s renewable capacity grew to an estimated 21,000 megawatts, including more utility-scale solar than all the rest of the states combined.

So how did California go from chaos to clean power leader in such a short time? And where does it go from here?

“Fifteen years out of a crisis — that’s kind of unprecedented,” said Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. “For the world’s seventh-biggest economy, to be in such a solid and good climate position in a decade and a half is remarkable.”

California’s phoenix act stems from a combination of favorable geography, innovative policies, and businesses that saw the benefits of clean energy investments, Kammen said. Reeling off a list of California solar companies, he said, “All of these companies are creating wealth … and that is the most fundamental part of the whole equation.”

With bipartisan support, state legislators a decade ago enacted an ambitious Renewables Portfolio Standard requiring that 33 percent of electricity sold in California come from renewable sources by 2020. Governor Brown has called for that goal to be raised to 50 percent by 2030, and his administration has expanded efforts to boost energy efficiency and
Commercial facilities in the state generate enough clean electricity to power 7 million homes.
to significantly increase the use of electric vehicles and renewables, among other measures.

Wind energy production has doubled since 2009, and today California generates nearly 6,400 megawatts of wind power, providing around 7 percent of the state’s electricity. Massive new solar farms are also coming online, including two 550-megawatt photovoltaic plants added last year. By the end of 2014, California had roughly 5,400 megawatts of utility-scale solar installed and several more facilities, including a new 579 megawatt plant, are slated to open by the end of next year. California also leads the nation in small distributed, or “rooftop,” solar, with more than 2,300 megawatts now installed, and analysts predict continued strong growth through 2016.

On top of that, the state has ample geothermal energy production, with expansion on the way. All told, according to the California Energy Commission, commercial renewable energy facilities in the state, including small hydropower, now generate enough clean electricity to power more than 7 million California homes — and that doesn’t include home solar and other smaller, on-site production.

The push toward renewables has bumped up electricity prices — Californians pay around 14 cents per kilowatt hour across all sectors, compared to a little over 10 cents nationwide, according to 2015 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Agency. But thanks to a mild climate and successful energy efficiency programs, residents’ monthly bills are actually among the lowest in the nation — Californians rank 49th in energy use and 46th in per-person spending on electricity.

But as California’s clean power goals rise, new capacity could begin to slow. Some planned large projects are now on hold due to financial problems. Others face environmental challenges, such as threats to bird flyways and desert habitats. Large-scale solar plants, particularly those using solar thermal technology, are losing appeal to investors as photovoltaic panel prices plunge. And utilities, having largely reached their current renewable procurement targets, have few new projects in the pipeline. What’s more, the federal solar investment tax credit program for new utility projects drops from 30 percent to 10 percent after 2016, and ends completely for
Apple and Google have recently announced they are developing their own grid-scale renewable energy projects.
individuals.

Despite these obstacles, a number of enterprising alternatives are emerging.

In the past few months, both Apple and Google have announced they are developing their own grid-scale renewable energy projects. Apple is partnering with FirstSolar to build a 280-megawatt solar farm not far from its Silicon Valley headquarters. The facility, slated for completion next year, will power all Apple stores in California, as well as the company’s offices and a large data center — plus deliver 150 megawatts to the grid. Not to be outdone, Google has bought into a wind project to power its huge Mountain View campus. The company plans to replace outdated turbines that are inefficient and hazardous to birds with fewer, higher-efficiency, bird-friendly machines.

Another new approach is designed to stimulate small, local renewable energy projects. Under this program, Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), cities and counties contract with renewable energy producers to tailor their own clean energy supply. Electricity is still delivered through the area utility, which charges a transmission fee, but residents can choose whether to receive up to 100 percent clean energy from the CCA.

The state’s first CCA, Marin Clean Energy, opened in 2010 and now serves about 165,000 customers. The program keeps costs down by buying directly from several small, local energy projects it helped develop, including a solar panel array on city airport hangars and biogas from a county landfill, as well as agreements with commercial solar, wind, and geothermal producers.

California’s green energy aggregation model is now spreading to other states, including one starting up this summer in New York’s Westchester County. The Los Angeles-area city of Lancaster this month launched its own CCA, which, along with Sonoma County, brings California’s total to three, with more in progress.

In a testament to clean energy’s bipartisan appeal in California, Lancaster’s Republican mayor, R. Rex Parris, dreams of making his city “the Silicon Valley of Clean Energy.” His initiatives include requiring solar panels on all new homes in this fast-growing community and luring an electric bus manufacturer to town.

“We’ll be net-zero this year,” Parris said, enthusiastically. “We’ll be producing more electricity than we use.”

In addition to slowing global warming — a cause Parris considers critical — he said becoming a clean energy community makes fiscal sense. The CCA’s
A massive influx of new energy threatens to overwhelm the current transmission system.
direct purchase from solar farms will save Lancaster users 15 to 30 percent on their energy bills, he said.

“The free market is working,” Parris said. “There are my Republican principles!”

California’s three large investor-owned utilities will soon begin offering clean power choices as well. Under a state community solar development mandate, they’ll be required to purchase renewable energy from small, local producers in an effort to encourage such endeavors and let customers choose their own energy mix.

Meanwhile, unlikely allies from universities to county dumps are banding together and taking a new look around their properties, with an eye to unused space that can be repurposed for clean energy production. Earlier this month, standing on a closed landfill near San Francisco Bay slated to sport 19,000 solar panels by next year, U.S. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said she hopes a pioneering Regional Renewable Energy Procurement arrangement by a group of public agencies will become a national model. Under that initiative, solar panels will be installed at 186 sites such as fire stations, city halls, libraries, college campuses, and sanitary districts across four northern California counties to produce energy than can be fed into the grid.

California’s energy transition still faces some daunting obstacles. A massive influx of new energy threatens to overwhelm the current transmission system. The sporadic nature of wind and solar poses a special challenge. In addition, the remote location of many new energy producers means the state will have to extend electrical wires.

The grid is already starting to experience oversupply episodes when wind and solar produce unexpected bursts of power, which forces the grid to shut down its energy feeds, said Steven Greenlee, a spokesman for the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the state’s grid regulator. That wastes energy.

To address these problems and achieve California’s goals for a new energy future, CAISO envisions fleets of private and mass-transit electric vehicles that serve as batteries on wheels — plugging in and soaking up excess current

ALSO FROM YALE e360

Will New Technologies Give
Critical Boost to Solar Power?

Solar technologies
Promising new technologies, including more efficient photovoltaic cells that can harvest energy across the light spectrum, have the potential to dramatically increase solar power generation in the next two decades. But major hurdles remain.
READ MORE
when the load gets too high, and feeding it back into the grid through special charging stations when supply drops. The plan also calls for retrofitting the state’s sluggish old conventional power plants or building new ones that can ramp up production quickly when the sun sets or the wind dies, then stop when these sources become active.

A third component — a regional electricity-sharing grid where California and its neighbors can cut costs and increase efficiency by offloading surplus or acquiring extra within minutes of peak demand — was launched last year. So far, Western Energy Imbalance Market members include parts of Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Wyoming, in addition to California.

Reaching the state’s aggressive new energy target likely will raise costs. A recent study by the consulting firm Energy+Environmental Economics and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated that the steps needed would add an average of $14 to monthly household bills. But Berkeley energy professor Kammen points out that the effort also will spur innovation, stimulate the economy, and create jobs.

Lancaster Mayor Parris agrees. “Once you release the creative forces like that,” he said, “it doesn’t stop.”



POSTED ON 26 May 2015 IN Business & Innovation Energy Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics North America North America 

COMMENTS


Excellent article! What strikes me about this clean
energy transition in CA is that is has taken
remarkable coordination and collaboration between
the public and private sectors in order to make CA's
achievements feasible. It seems evident now that this
has worked, and is both and economic and
environmental boon. However, this was not without
pushback from the utilities, local governments, and
the business community at various stages. A
reminder that ambitious initiatives such as this
always meet resistance from those threatened by
change. I see a critical issue for the future of CA's
clean energy transition is continuing to support the
growth of distributed generation along with the
development of new utility models that are not
undermined by increasing small power producers.
These models will have to address the fact that it is
the utilities that still own and manage the
transmission and distribution network, and yet
current models do not adequately account for the
cost burden that grid defectors place on utilities and
remaining customers.
Posted by Christopher Clement on 31 May 2015


This article does a nice job summarizing California's renewable energy progress, but there are two points needing clarification:

(1) Implying that the "bump" in electricity prices has been caused by renewables doesn't take account of many other causes: transmission upgrades, the (welcome) shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear plant, the disastrous San Bruno gas explosion, to name a few.

(2) Lancaster mayor Rex Parris's claim to have created a zero net energy city is a bit of a stretch. The city has made real solar strides but much of the power generated within its borders is sold to other municipalities that claim the renewable electricity as their own. There seems to be a bit of double counting there.
Posted by Philip Warburg on 01 Jun 2015


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


cheryl katzABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheryl Katz is a San Francisco Bay Area-based science writer covering energy, environmental health, and climate change. She has reported from Iceland to Africa on issues ranging from geothermal power to flood control. Her articles have appeared in Scientific American, National Geographic.com, and Science News. Previously for e360, she reported on challenges in forecasting extreme weather and possible weakening of the oceans’ heat-buffering ability.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Floating Solar: A Win-Win for
Drought-Stricken Lakes in U.S.

Floating solar panel arrays are increasingly being deployed in places as diverse as Brazil and Japan. One prime spot for these “floatovoltaic” projects could be the sunbaked U.S. Southwest, where they could produce clean energy and prevent evaporation in major man-made reservoirs.
READ MORE

In Iowa, A Bipartisan Push to
Become Leader in Wind Energy

Thanks to state officials who have long supported renewables, Iowa now leads all U.S. states in the percentage of its energy produced from wind. Big companies, including Facebook and Google, are taking notice and cite clean energy as a major reason for locating new facilities there.
READ MORE

Can We Reduce CO2 Emissions
And Grow the Global Economy?

Surprising new statistics show that the world economy is expanding while global carbon emissions remain at the same level. Is it possible that the elusive “decoupling” of emissions and economic growth could be happening?
READ MORE

Why Supreme Court’s Action
Creates Opportunity on Climate

The U.S. Supreme Court order blocking the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan may have a silver lining: It provides an opportunity for the U.S. to show other nations it has a flexible, multi-faceted approach to cutting emissions.
READ MORE

With Court Action, Obama’s
Climate Policies in Jeopardy

The U.S. Supreme Court order blocking President Obama’s plan to cut emissions from coal-burning power plants is an unprecedented step and one of the most environmentally harmful decisions ever made by the nation’s highest court.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


Sticker Shock: The Soaring Costs
Of Germany’s Nuclear Shutdown

by joel stonington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors has left the government and utilities with a massive problem: How to clean up and store large amounts of nuclear waste and other radioactive material.
READ MORE

How to Restore an Urban River?
Los Angeles Looks to Find Out

by jim robbins
Officials are moving ahead with a major revitalization of the Los Angeles River – removing miles of concrete along its banks and re-greening areas now covered with pavement. But the project raises an intriguing question: Just how much of an urban river can be returned to nature?
READ MORE

How Growing Sea Plants Can
Help Slow Ocean Acidification

by nicola jones
Researchers are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, scientists say, could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine life.
READ MORE

Vanishing Act: What’s Causing Sharp
Decline in Insects and Why It Matters

by christian schwägerl
Insect populations are declining dramatically in many parts of the world, recent studies show. Researchers say various factors, from monoculture farming to habitat loss, are to blame for the plight of insects, which are essential to agriculture and ecosystems.
READ MORE

For India’s Captive Leopards,
A Life Sentence Behind Bars

by richard conniff
As sightings of leopards in populated areas increase, Indian authorities are trapping the animals and keeping them in captivity — often in small cages without adequate food or veterinary care. The real solution, wildlife advocates say, is to educate the public on how to coexist with the big cats.
READ MORE

A Tiny Pacific Nation Takes the
Lead on Protecting Marine Life

by emma bryce
Unhappy with how regional authorities have failed to protect fish stocks in the Western Pacific, Palau has launched its own bold initiatives – creating a vast marine sanctuary and conducting an experiment designed to reduce bycatch in its once-thriving tuna fishery.
READ MORE

A Rather Bizarre Bivalve Stirs
Controversy in the Puget Sound

by ben goldfarb
The Asian market for the odd-looking giant clams known as geoducks has spawned a growing aquaculture industry in Washington's Puget Sound. But coastal homeowners and some conservationists are concerned about the impact of these farming operations on the sound’s ecosystem.
READ MORE

At 1,066 Feet Above Rainforest,
A View of the Changing Amazon

by daniel grossman
A steel structure in the Amazon, taller than the Eiffel Tower, will soon begin monitoring the atmosphere above the world’s largest tropical forest, providing an international team of scientists with key insights into how this vital region may be affected by global warming.
READ MORE

In Iowa, A Bipartisan Push to
Become Leader in Wind Energy

by roger real drouin
Thanks to state officials who have long supported renewables, Iowa now leads all U.S. states in the percentage of its energy produced from wind. Big companies, including Facebook and Google, are taking notice and cite clean energy as a major reason for locating new facilities there.
READ MORE

Hard-Pressed Rust Belt Cities
Go Green to Aid Urban Revival

by winifred bird
Gary, Indiana is joining Detroit and other fading U.S. industrial centers in an effort to turn abandoned neighborhoods and factory sites into gardens, parks, and forests. In addition to the environmental benefits, these greening initiatives may help catalyze an economic recovery.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Ugandan
Ugandan scientists monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale