Calif. utilities surge past 20% mark for green energy

Source: Anne C. Mulkern • E&E • Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012

California’s largest utilities have hit or are close to reaching a mandate that they generate 20 percent of their power from renewable sources, a major milestone as the state pushes toward the country’s most ambitious green energy goal.

In filings with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (SDG&E), Southern California Edison, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) said that they had added large amounts of wind, solar and other renewable power capacity in 2011.

Edison surged to the front of the group, passing the 21 percent mark for renewable power. SDG&E hit 20.8 percent, while PG&E reached 19.4 percent green energy.

“It’s about 10 years since the legislation was passed that set the 20 percent goal for 2010,” said John Geesman, a California Energy Commission member from 2002 to 2008. “The fact that the utilities are now on the verge of accomplishing that target is quite significant in terms of being able to meet the 33 percent target in 2020.”

By 2020, California wants the largest utilities to make 33 percent of their power from green sources. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has said that he considers that level “a floor, not a ceiling.” The utilities are acquiring wind, solar and other green power generation as they work to meet the mandate, which is the most aggressive in the nation.

The state’s three largest power companies originally were supposed to have met the 20 percent mark two years ago. The state’s Legislature since has moved that deadline, and utilities now need to average that level for the period between 2011 and next year. The CPUC said last month that power companies were adding green energy at a record level and that it appeared that they would meet the mandate (ClimateWire, Feb. 6).

The governor and his supporters say that the standard is fueling investment in the state and spurring job creation. Critics argue that the state’s environmental hurdles will make it difficult to reach that green goal and that the state’s transmission system will need major upgrades to manage green power levels above 20 percent.

Adjusting for ‘changing dynamics’

There also are questions about how to ensure the lights stay on when dealing with power sources that rely on Mother Nature.

“We love renewables. Our job is to make sure we can maintain the same level of reliability as we have right now when we get to that 33 percent goal,” said Stephanie McCorkle, spokeswoman for the California Independent System Operator (ISO), which runs the grid. “We see it as doable; however, it is changing the dynamics of grid operations.”

“We can see wind, for instance, drop by 800 megawatts in a half an hour,” McCorkle said. “That’s the size of two medium-size power plants.”

Other regulations in the state also could throw up new hurdles to securing enough power, McCorkle said. At the same time that the state is requiring utilities to increase the portion of renewables they use, there is a pending California Department of Water Resources rule that could cause natural gas generation to drop off, McCorkle said.

That water regulation in 2017 will restrict the amount of ocean water that can be used to cool turbine generators, McCorkle said. That will affect power plants located near California’s coast that use seawater.

Some of the owners of those natural gas plants are opting to retire the facilities rather than pay retrofitting expenses. Natural gas plants are important because they can ramp up and power down quickly when the wind stops blowing or clouds cause solar energy to drop off, she said.

“We see a potential shortfall in this flexible capacity,” McCorkle said.

The grid operator is asking the CPUC to require utilities in their advance planning to ensure that they have enough generation that can come online rapidly, McCorkle said.

There is different risk, Geesman said, depending on whether the renewable power is a large-scale project located far from urban areas, or more locally based rooftop solar or other distributed generation.

“We have significantly more experience in terms of the ISO managing at the transmission grid level,” Geesman said. The research at the distribution level is not as far along, he said, but the “risks are smaller because the size of the circuits is smaller.” Diversity in the number of circuits provides protection, he said.

The power companies said they are keeping their portfolios diverse.

“We have an obligation to meet California’s renewable requirements, and, at the same time, need to put in place infrastructure that maintains power reliability and quality when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine,” James Avery, SDG&E’s senior vice president of power supply, said in a statement. “It is an interesting balance that brings into play our new renewables resources, clean natural gas fueled power generation and the flexibility and immediate response built into smart grid technology.”

Adding more wind, solar

The pace at which utilities are adding renewable power is accelerating. SDG&E increased green power 9 percent from 2010. That utility added 17 new power contracts with mostly solar and wind energy sources, it said in a statement.

SDG& said that it was in position to achieve the state’s 25 percent renewable power requirement by 2016 and is “on track to meet the state’s mandate that 33 percent of its retail sales be produced from renewable energy projects by 2020.”

“We have a very robust, creative and aggressive power purchasing team at SDG&E whose ongoing goal is to obtain competitively priced renewable power for our customers,” Avery said.

PG&E estimated that 19.4 percent of the electricity it delivered to its customers in 2011 came from renewable resources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and small hydroelectric, versus 15.9 percent a year earlier. The utility also said that it expects to hit the 33 percent target by 2020.

Since August 2011, PG&E said, five projects totaling 201 megawatts have come online. Additionally, there are three new wind and solar contracts with a combined capacity of about 413 MW. Each megawatt serves about 1,000 homes, the ISO said.

“We saw significant gains in 2011 thanks in part to the ability of developers to overcome financing and transmission obstacles and to meet project milestones,” Fong Wan, PG&E’s senior vice president for energy procurement, said in a statement. “PG&E expects its vigorous renewables procurement program will continue to deliver results in the years to come.”