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Solar plant efforts struggle

State audit finds that any such projects would face major bureaucratic and economic hurdles.

January 25, 2008|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Despite state goals to encourage alternative energy, no application to build a large solar power plant in California has been approved in 18 years, and new projects could face significant delays in the bureaucracy, the state auditor said Thursday.

An audit found that power plants must go through multiple agencies for approval, and there is no one authority that can smooth the process.

"The current delays in power-generation are not meeting California's needs, and we need to find a way to expedite approvals," said Assemblyman Paul Krekorian (D-Burbank), who requested the audit.

Auditor Elaine Howle's report found that economics are largely to blame for the lack of large solar projects under construction.

"These factors include the lower cost of electricity generated from other renewable sources, the need for large investments in land and infrastructure, and an unproductive incentive system designed to help firms that generate power from renewable sources meet their costs," Howle wrote to the governor and Legislature.

The auditor said actions by the state and a changing energy market appear to have spurred new interest in solar power plants in California, but she warned that red tape may end up slowing future projects.

More than 50 applications have been filed with the federal Bureau of Land Management for large solar plants, those that would produce more than 50 megawatts, but no application for such a facility has been approved by the state since 1990. Two applications for large projects are being processed, and eight more are expected this year, said Terry O'Brien, a deputy director for the California Energy Commission.

From 2002 to 2006, the commission took, on average, nearly twice as long as its 365-day timeline to approve 15 nonsolar power-plant applications, which follow the same process as solar applications, the audit found. In one case, it took 1,246 days to approve an application.

Many of the delays are caused by applicants who have not strongly pursued the projects, O'Brien said.

O'Brien said the Bureau of Land Management has taken as long as two years to complete required environmental reviews.

The audit said delays were largely the result of factors over which the energy commission had no control, including applicants changing their projects or not providing information to the state in a timely matter.

The Legislature in 2002 adopted a program to encourage renewable energy with the goal that such power would make up 20% of the portfolios of investor-owned utilities by 2010. The audit said only about 11% of electricity generated in California comes from renewable sources, with less than 1% from solar.

The audit findings and current standing of solar power troubled environmentalists including V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.

"I'm disappointed," White said. "California needs to do better matching the rhetoric to its actions."

The audit noted that the average lowest bid to private utilities for electricity from solar power was 19% higher than bids for electricity from wind power.

In the 2002 legislation, lawmakers required the energy commission to award supplemental energy payments to assist companies that generate electricity from renewable sources when the cost exceeds the market price.

However, the audit found that the commission had not awarded any supplemental payments. Officials said few companies, if any, qualified.

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patrick.mcgreevy@ latimes.com

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