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California utilities struggle to meet renewable-power requirement

The three large investor-owned utilities have less than six months to comply with a law requiring them to procure 20% of retail electricity sales from clean sources.

July 10, 2010|By Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times

Still, the investor-owned utilities have been outpaced by some of their municipal utility counterparts in ramping up the use of green energy. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, for example, are on track to reach a self-imposed 20% target by the end of 2010, according to environmental experts and utility executives.

"The [investor-owned] utilities have done a great job signing contracts, but they've done a terrible job signing contracts that get built," said Gregg Morris, the Berkeley-based director of renewable energy research at the Green Power Institute. "The system has not worked."

The playing field is littered with stymied projects. Regulators rejected an application in 2008 from Pacific Gas & Electric and Finavera Renewables Inc. to develop a 2-megawatt wave-power project off the coast of Humboldt County. Engineering holdups have slowed San Diego Gas & Electric's 49-megawatt Mt. Signal Solar project in the Imperial Valley, which was supposed to be operational in 2008. It's much the same for some wind and biomass projects in Santa Barbara and San Diego counties.

Transmission remains a thorny issue. Giant power towers and high-voltage lines are often opposed by citizen groups. Permitting can take years. Just three of 11 segments planned for Southern California Edison's $2.1-billion Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project have been completed. San Diego Gas & Electric is wading through reviews and approvals for its $1.8-billion Sunrise Powerlink effort.

Then there's the clash of the environmentalists. Clean-power advocates who favor utility-scale renewable projects have been butting heads with activists concerned that gigantic wind turbines and massive solar farms with their acres of reflective mirrors are damaging California's natural landscapes and threatening wildlife. Concern over the fate of a native ground squirrel have stalled Solar Millennium's proposal to build a 250-megawatt solar farm in the Mojave Desert. Last year, Brightsource Energy Inc. ditched plans for a 500-megawatt solar plant in the Mojave Desert after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would push for legislation to turn the area into a national monument.

The obstacles will only loom larger as California moves toward an even more aggressive standard in 2020.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order last year for the state to derive 33% of its electricity from renewable sources within the next decade. A bill pending in the Legislature seeks to turn that executive order into law.

The big power companies are now looking at getting clean electricity from rooftop solar panels on commercial buildings, gas from landfills, even wind power from turbines on Indian reservations.

"We've been pursuing all avenues here," said Michael Niggli, president of San Diego Gas & Electric. "Our eyes are on the prize."

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