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California and the West

Green Energy Is Getting Its Second Wind

Electricity: After a decade of dwindling government support, alternative power gets a boost from improved technology to ease strain on state's overtaxed grid.

September 12, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN GORGONIO PASS, Calif. — Run for the hills, Don Quixote.

Sure, there was a time when Fred Noble wished he had never been cajoled into trashing his plans for a trailer park to build a newfangled wind farm. A tax program encouraging investment in "green" energy had ended. Utilities weren't interested. There were engineering disasters, and his land on the outskirts of Palm Springs seemed destined to become a high-tech junkyard.

"I sure wished I had that trailer park," Noble said.

No longer.

Fifteen years later, he is the president and majority owner of Wintec Energy Ltd.--one of the companies that operates 20 square miles of windmills that spin incessantly on the edge of the California desert. Suddenly, windmills and other alternative energy sources are making a substantial contribution to California's power grid.

Old, clunky windmills are being replaced with larger, sleeker ones that generate 10 times the power, harnessing the wind with blades as long as 89 feet and feeding the energy into giant turbines that make electricity. Operators believe the state avoided some blackouts this summer partly because of the contributions made by such renewable energy.

The windmills in the San Gorgonio Pass, one of three large wind farms in California, produced 900 million kilowatt-hours of electricity last year--enough to power 75,000 homes--and expects to top 1 billion kilowatt-hours this year. Wind now provides about 1.5% of California's electricity, three times what it could provide in the 1980s.

Banking on that momentum, some power officials now predict that alternative energy producers--long considered a novelty act by the industry--will generate more than 10% of the nation's electricity within 30 years. Though the companies that dominate the market dispute that green energy is ready for prime time, even smaller gains would represent a critical consequence of this summer's energy crisis.

"All of a sudden renewable energy has gone from an interesting curiosity to something that makes a difference in the system," said Noble, strolling along a row of windmills. "It's taken a while to prove that we can make a contribution--and this summer really did that."

Just as the promise of cheap, environmentally friendly energy was soaring, however, Noble glanced skyward.

"The wind is dying," he said under his breath, as the silent blades--so promising when there's a breeze, and so bedeviling when there's not--began slowing to a halt. It was particularly distressing because the wind change occurred just before noon, when the windmills generate more money because customer demand for electricity is highest.

At times like that, the future of renewable energy remains unclear.

Was this summer a fluke--a unique opportunity for alternative energy created by disaster elsewhere in the industry?

Or did it take a crisis for renewable energy outfits--wind, solar and geothermal companies--to prove that they can carve out a viable niche?

Lars Bergmann is the director of qualifying facilities resources at Southern California Edison--meaning he oversees Edison's contracts with alternative energy producers. Edison is required by law to buy some of its power from those producers, which generate about 11% of the electricity used in California.

Bergmann agrees that renewable energy can decrease California's reliance on fossil fuels, making the industry more environmentally palatable. And he agrees that new technology has made wind farms more productive.

But, seated in his Rosemead office, he watched, in real time, the power being produced in the San Gorgonio Pass--and he was not impressed. According to the data rolling across his computer, the wind farm produced no electricity one day last week, though California is still in the grips of summer.

"And that's a fairly common occurrence," he said. "On the hottest days, without fail, they are at zero. . . . As far as their ability in the future to help us meet the peak demands, I don't think it has a lot of promise."

Despite such skepticism, though, the federal government last week began lobbying local governments to join forces to buy "green" power in bulk. The federal government has already dabbled in such deals. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, decided earlier this year to buy enough alternative-source power to serve more than 1,000 California facilities.

Renewable Energy Generates Safety Net

California is already the country's largest consumer of alternative energy--and Steven Kelly believes it's only the beginning.

The policy director at the Independent Energy Producers Assn., a trade group that represents a broad range of power providers, including alternative energy, Kelly believes this summer is an indication that green energy will be a player for years to come.

"The question is how sustainable this is," he said. "I think this is a very good opportunity for renewable industry to present itself as a very good hedge against volatility. There are a lot of people who are starting to rethink this."

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