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Renewable energy projects in California go unused

Millions of dollars in projects intended to provide power to facilities in the state's national parks and forests are sitting idle because of a years-long squabble with Southern California Edison.

January 09, 2012|By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times
  • Woody Smeck, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, stands next to solar panels installed on top of a carport at the King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas. Because of a squabble between federal agencies and Southern California Edison, renewable energy projects in California's national parks and forests are on hold.
Woody Smeck, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

Millions of dollars in renewable energy projects intended to provide power to facilities in California's national parks and forests are sitting idle because of a years-long squabble with Southern California Edison.

A new $800,000 solar project at Death Valley National Park, photovoltaic panels at the state-of-the art visitors center at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and a solar power system at the U.S. Forest Service's new facility at Mono Lake are among dozens of taxpayer-funded projects in Southern California on hold as the federal agencies try to hash out an agreement with SCE to tie the projects to the state's electrical grid.

The apparent stumbling block involves contract restrictions imposed by federal law, but utilities elsewhere in California have signed similar agreements with the agencies with few problems or delays.

"There's 24-plus systems in the Southern California Edison area that have been installed in the last three years that we have not been able to negotiate an interconnection agreement on," said Jack Williams, who retired this month as the National Park Service's Oakland-based regional facilities manager. "We think we are close at times, but then nothing. We were successful with PG&E, but with Southern California Edison.... They have been a bit more difficult. We've raised the flag many times. It's an issue for all federal agencies."

An Edison spokesman declined to discuss the projects, citing ongoing negotiations.

The impasse has hindered the parks' ability to meet renewable energy goals at a time when federal agencies are rushing to comply with orders to reduce carbon footprints. Equally troubling, officials say, is the financial fallout: a projected saving of tens of thousands of dollars from utility bills hasn't been realized during the two years the park service and forest service have been negotiating with Edison.

Parks officials at Death Valley had hoped the newly renovated visitors center would pare an estimated $31,828 from an annual electric bill of $45,724, a 70% drop in energy cost. At the Santa Monica Mountains, a solar plant designed to power a dormitory has been offline since October 2010.

"It is disappointing to see this big investment sitting idle when we could easily flip the switch and produce benefits," said park superintendent Woody Smeck, who called himself "an administrator here trying to do the right thing."

"We are purchasing electricity from SCE, whereas we could be using renewable energy from the sun and returning power to the grid. Until we can get the interconnection agreement approved, the switch is off and we can't benefit."

The stalemate is also affecting the Veterans Administration and the Department of the Navy, which require interconnection agreements or power purchase agreements with the regional utility. Gov. Jerry Brown's office has dispatched Michael Picker, the governor's advisor on renewable energy, to meet with all the parties in coming weeks to hammer out differences.

Federal agencies generally may not sign contracts that would leave them liable for unknown future damages because they would be committing money that Congress hasn't allocated. In some instances, government departments use contracts based on the federal torts process, the legal mechanism to bring liability claims against the government. But so far, the federal agencies have been unable to get SCE to agree to such contract provisions.

The forest service said it has been trying to draft an agreement using a standard U.S. General Services Administration utility contract, but that approach has not gained any traction.

In addition to the Mono Lake project, the forest service has been waiting for a year to connect its solar panels at the San Dimas Technology and Development Center, which houses the agency's top engineering and development center for wilderness firefighting equipment. The solar plant there would be subject to rebates for the excess power it generates, officials said.

If any national park can make solar power work, it would be Death Valley, one of the world's sunniest and hottest landscapes. But superintendent Sarah L. Craigheadsaid the park's solar projects have been unplugged since she took the job 21/2 years ago.

"We have been trying to get these agreements in place for quite some time. Everything is just sitting in the queue. Some panels were put up as part of the stimulus package," she said, referring to the economic initiative begun in the early days of the Obama administration.

Craighead said attorneys in the InteriorDepartment's solicitor's office had been called on to help resolve the issue.

"We want to turn these things on," she said.

Although Death Valley's solar projects have not been able to get connected, the park's concessionaire has managed to install a one-megawatt photovoltaic plant that will provide one-third of the power needed to run the park's hotels, restaurants, golf course, offices and employee housing.

Pacific Gas & Electric last summer connected Yosemite's $5.8-million photovoltaic project at El Portal. The project was completed in February 2011, and the park signed the interconnection agreement four months later.

The 2,800 solar panels should produce approximately 800,000 kilowatt-hours per year. Yosemite officials estimate the system will save $50,000 per year on electricity bills and generate an energy rebate of $700,000 from PG&E over the next five years.

julie.cart@latimes.com

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