Calif. reaches out to neighbors in push for green power

Source: Anne C. Mulkern, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, January 18, 2013

California is looking beyond its borders for green power as it reaches to meet the country’s highest renewable energy mandate.

The Golden State’s grid manager has just linked with a Nevada power group and is studying whether to team up with a second electricity authority in the adjoining state.

Merging forces with Nevada would allow its solar, wind and geothermal electricity to count toward California’s green energy goal, Nevada officials said. It also would avoid the need to build duplicate power lines and would provide an incentive to fund transmission upgrades in the years ahead.

“California really wants to meet its climate change goals,” said Edward Burgess with Kris Mayes Law Firm, which studied transmission planning for the Western Governors’ Association. “Having a varied regional approach is going to be necessary.”

California’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requires that one-third of all power come from clean sources by 2020. The state’s demand for green energy accounts for two-thirds of all renewable energy thirst in the Western Interconnection, which includes 11 states, some of Texas, and parts of Canada and Mexico.

Nevada said that it has plenty of power to share, especially solar and geothermal power resources, said Stacy Crowley, director of Nevada’s Office of Energy.

Solar in Nevada could be developed to juice as many as 25 million California homes and geothermal to power as many as 3 million households, according to estimates Crowley gave.

“We’ve got a lot of resources; we just don’t have the load or the need for it in the state,” Crowley said. “We’ve got a lot to provide to the West if it’s done in a cost competitive way.”

Nevada’s top power provider — NV Energy Inc. — is looking at a number of different ways it could link to the California Independent System Operator (Cal ISO). The analysis is due back this spring.

California doesn’t need Nevada power to hit the 33 percent RPS. The Golden State’s biggest utilities have projected that they can do that with existing contracts, which mostly are for in-state power. But green electricity isn’t available if clouds are out or the wind is not blowing, said Ethan Elkind, a climate research fellow at the University of California.

“It helps to balance it out if you have a lot of different resources to compensate,” Elkind said. “At some point, the state’s going to have to go in that direction, where we start to bring in renewable resources from all across the Western region.”

California currently uses natural gas-fired power plants to back up intermittent renewable sources, but “that hurts our overall effort at decarbonizing the electricity grid,” Elkind said.

Study on Nev. link under way

The first merger with Nevada took place earlier this month. The Pahrump, Nev.-based Valley Electric Association became a participating transmission owner in the California ISO.

There is a swath of land with the potential for solar power along the eastern edge of Inyo County, Calif., which is located west of Las Vegas. California utilities have already agreed to buy some of the power from projects in the region.

The best way to deliver that power to Golden State customers is via an interconnection with VEA’s lines, Cal ISO said.

“The new partnership creates a cost-effective means of getting both California and Nevada renewables to market,” Cal ISO said in a statement. “Several proposed solar projects worth nearly one and a half gigawatts are in VEA’s backyard.”

Cal ISO now is looking at a second tie to the Silver State. California’s grid manager and NV Energy are studying whether they should officially link.

NV Energy is the biggest authority in the state, with its subsidiaries providing power to 85 percent of Nevada. An official tie with California would provide an incentive for development of more renewable power, Crowley said.


Rules set up by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) restrict what can count toward the state’s RPS. In general, three-fourths of green power must start with a California Balancing Authority (CBA), an agency that controls regional generation and transmission.


Cal ISO is a CBA, so if a power manager joins, renewable projects within its borders should count toward the Golden State’s green mandate, said Steve Weissman], a former administrative law judge at the CPUC. He now serves as director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment.


“The extent to which you expand the ISO’s control area, you’re also expanding the ability to have a first point of interconnection between renewable energy projects and the ISO’s grid,” Weissman said.


That makes it more appealing for companies to develop green projects, Crowley said. Geothermal energy plants, she noted, are expensive to build, so businesses want to make sure they have a utility lined up to buy power.


“It would provide a little more incentive for California utilities to consider purchasing Nevada renewables because it would be considered part of their system,” Crowley said. “So that would be an attractive option for developers in Nevada, if they could provide a direct connect into the California market to meet their RPS.”


There also would be opportunities to ship California power to Nevada, she said. The Silver State has a renewable energy mandate of 25 percent by 2025.


Several benefits


There are several options for a link between Cal ISO and NV Energy, up to and including the Nevada authority becoming a participating transmission owner. Renewable power from the state might qualify for California’s RPS under a variety of scenarios, said Mark Rothleder, Cal ISO’s vice president of market quality and renewable integration.


Linking with Nevada wouldn’t be a way of working around the RPS rules, said Elkind with University of California.


“Even if it’s generated out of state, I don’t see the problem with that,” Elkin said, adding, “Politically, it could encourage [Nevada] to develop higher targets for renewable power in their own state.”


It could also reduce costs for electricity ratepayers, Weissman said. While there are always unforeseen variables, he said, bringing more developers and projects in means competition that should drive down prices.


Linking systems would also mean planning for transmission in a more efficient way, said Stephanie McCorkle, a Cal ISO spokeswoman.


Nevada’s Valley Electric Association joined California’s grid manager, she said, and the two systems merged their interconnection queue, a list of prospective projects asking to be studied for their impact on the grid.


“In general, hopefully, when you’ve got a larger area that you’re doing the planning for, you are going to avoid redundancies,” McCorkle said. “That, in the long term, will plan the system more efficiently and reduce costs.”