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Renewable energy gains still far off, reports show  

California’s utilities are falling behind schedule in meeting a deadline that 20% of their electricity must come from renewable resources by 2010, newly issued reports from two energy agencies show.

In separate updates, state energy regulators paint markedly different pictures of how California is progressing in efforts to procure power from sun, wind, water and waste. But both indicate that a crucial piece of the state’s ambitious plan to reduce greenhouse gases is sputtering.

The California Energy Commission offered a bleak assessment in its Jan. 3 report, saying there had been little real addition to the power grid from renewable sources thus far. The state Public Utilities Commission, in a much rosier assessment released Friday, said power companies had signed numerous large contracts for major projects and progress was good. But in its charts, the PUC showed the state meeting its goals by 2011 at the soonest.

“All they are missing is the happy face on the cover,” said V. John White, head of a Sacramento-based coalition of alternative energy companies and environmental groups. “We’re not going to meet the deadline.”

In the PUC report, almost all the new power is “contracted” or pending approval, and White noted that one of the largest projects was dependent on a type of solar technology that was still being tested.

“The potential for contract failure is significant,” he said. “Bottom line is, we will never meet the governor’s 2020 climate target if we don’t rapidly accelerate our renewable investment and acquisition.”

The California Energy Commission is responsible for monitoring the progress of the PUC and utilities in meeting the targets laid out in a state law passed last year to speed acquisition of renewable power. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature have mandated that the state must reduce by 25% its emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 2020; such gases are widely believed to cause global warming.

In its report, the CEC noted that although California’s large investor-owned utilities claim progress in meeting the state’s goals with contracts for nearly 4,000 megawatts of renewable energy, only 242 new megawatts are online today. Even if all the contracts hold up, the utilities will need to add as much as 1,500 megawatts more, it said. A megawatt is enough electricity to serve about 750 average homes.

Municipally owned utilities have a long way to go, too, the CEC report concluded.

The report cited key barriers: lack of adequate transmission lines from the remote Tehachapi area for wind power and the Imperial Valley for geothermal power to heavily populated areas; uncertainty over financing; complexity of regulations and lack of publicly available data; insufficient attention to possible contract failure and delay; and already aging wind facilities.

The PUC’s eight-page assessment, by contrast, said that “utilities are making steady progress towards [the] ambitious 20% by 2010 goal,” and that Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. “are closing in on the 20% target.”

Sean Gallagher, director of the PUC energy division, said: “This is our best snapshot at this time. You get pretty close to 20% in 2010, and you hit 20% in 2011.”

“Our view is that we’re not trying to be unduly optimistic, and we’re not trying to be unduly pessimistic. Our basic theme is there’s a lot of progress being made,” he said.

But CEC member John Geesman had a different take.

“The PUC staff has placed a higher level of confidence in those contracts than the energy commission has,” said Geesman, who heads the agency’s renewables committee. A consultant hired by the CEC determined that about a third of all such contracts fail, Geesman said.

“It’s really more of a difference between counting. Both agencies have differing perspectives. Only history will tell which one of is right,” Geesman said. He said that actions at the PUC would help determine whether the deadline would be met, including possibly penalizing the utilities if they fall short, as the PUC is allowed to do after 2010.

The utilities gave differing assessments of how they were doing on meeting the deadline.

“We are on track to provide 20% of our customers’ power from renewable resources by 2010,” said Terry Farrelly, vice president of electric and gas procurement at San Diego Gas & Electric.

Spokesman Eddie Van Herik added: “We have 16% under contract. We’re going to put more under contract than the 20% to provide a cushion. We’re confident we’re going to meet the deadline.”

But Stuart Hemphill, director of Edison’s renewable power buying program, said the Rosemead utility was “finding it to be a real challenge to meet the 2010 goal, but we’re doing all that we can”¦. Everybody’s working as fast and as feverishly as possible.”

A huge 1,500-megawatt wind contract that the company signed recently for the Tehachapi region “relies fully” on the approval and completion of a transmission project, Hemphill said.

“There’s no question that we’ll make the 20% goal. The question is when,” he said.

Ryan Wiser, an engineer and economist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who has analyzed state renewables programs across the country, including for the CEC, said both California agencies were “doing their darndest” to comply with the law. But he said the lack of available transmission lines would make it “physically impossible” to meet the 2010 deadline, although 2013 was doable.

But environmentalists said the utilities were wasting time and money by investing in controversial out-of-state coal power plants that might share transmission lines with cleaner solar or wind energy.

“It’s absurd to suggest that California can’t meet a 20% goal by 2010,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, energy advocate for Environment California. “The utilities’ feet should be held to the fire. There’s no question California has enough renewable resources to meet the 20% and go well beyond.”


By Janet Wilson and Elizabeth Douglass, Times Staff Writers
January 20, 2007


This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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