Expect the landscape of California’s counties to change. That’s the message in Governor Schwarzenegger’s recent announcement of 244 proposed renewable energy projects in varying stages of the state’s expedited review and permitting process.

“This list of nearly 250 projects is great news for our state because not only will these projects help us meet our long-term environmental goals they will also create green jobs and new, clean investment in our economy now,” the Governor said in his December 29, 2009 statement.

To meet federal and state-mandated renewable energy goals, applications are eligible for a fast-track permitting process through both the California Energy Commission and Bureau of Land Management to ease planned energy projects into the construction and operation phases.

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar opened the first renewable energy office in Palm Springs to process renewable energy applications on BLM parcels.

Secretary Salazar also designated more than 200,000 acres of public land in Riverside County as one of 24 “solar energy study zones” in five western states to encourage solar energy development in the region.

The Bureau of Land Management currently has 14 fast-track California energy projects (nine solar, three wind and two energy transmission) that are eligible for the Stimulus funding deadline of December, 2010.

New Projects and Technologies

Permit applications include all forms of renewable energy: wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and small hydro facilities from a diverse group of applicants: cities, counties, private energy developers and the U.S. Army. Its Fort Irwin solar project is the Department of Defense’s largest renewable energy project and an attempt to develop an independent energy source for the Barstow military base.

Another presence on the state’s renewable energy scene is the Department of Veterans Affairs. The federal agency has awarded contracts for solar-powered and hot water energy systems to its hospitals in Fresno, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Loma Linda and Long Beach. The California hospital projects are part of the VA’s alternative energy program and won’t use Stimulus funds to complete the projects.

Unique technologies are part of the new energy presence in California. SolarReserve, a Santa Monica-based solar developer, will use molten salt as the main component in its Rice Solar Energy facility near Blythe in Riverside County. This process allows energy be stored at night — unlike other solar technologies. SolarReserve has contracted with Pacific Gas and Electric Company to sell electricity generated at the Rice facility.

The Rice Solar project, based on a successful Department of Energy prototype near Barstow, could begin construction as early as 2011 pending completion of all required environmental reviews.

Opposition to New High-Voltage Lines

As projects roll off the renewable assembly line, new technologies and partnerships are forged, but the old problem of energy transmission remains: how to move renewable energy from remote locations to highly-populated urban areas.

The $1.8 billion Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, if built, will run for 173 miles through sections of Bakersfield, Kern and Los Angeles counties.

After the California Public Utilities Commission approved the Southern California Edison project on December 17, 2009, Assemblyman Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills) said he would introduce legislation to halt it.

The legislation is in the drafting phase, said Mike Spence, chief of staff to Assemblyman Hagman.

A key concern is the placement of what Spence calls “monster towers” within 75 feet of some Chino homes. A better alternative, he said, is to utilize abandoned high-voltage towers already constructed in unused portions of Chino Hills State Park.

“We’re going to try to stop the project,” said Spence. “It’s a public safety issue.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently voted 5-0 to oppose the project, citing concerns of residents in Acton, a small city in Antelope Valley, that the construction of a new substation and access roads would threaten their safety and quality of life.

A second controversial high-voltage project, the Green Path North, was shelved last week by its developer, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The 80-mile transmission line through the desert from the Palm Springs area to Hesperia, was opposed since its inception by environmental groups and residents.

The DWP, under the new management of David Freeman, continues its search for renewable energy resources.

In an effort to increase its renewable energy portfolio from a current low of only 14 percent to 40 percent by 2020, the DWP has leased land in Imperial County to investigate the potential for geothermal energy near the Salton Sea. The DWP is also looking at sites in the Owens Valley for future development.

Financing Challenges Energy Projects

Unstable financial markets have endangered private energy financing of some renewable projects, including a wind farm project in Shasta County and one of the largest solar projects ever planned in the Central Valley.

Shasta County’s Hatchet Ridge Wind Project was threatened by the insolvency last August of Australia-based Babcock & Brown, its primary financier, part way through the project.

Bill Walker, senior planner for Shasta County, said the new funder, Pattern Energy Group of San Diego, is a spinoff from the original financier and will be able to continue funding Hatchet Ridge to its completion.

Walker said no Stimulus funds will be used to finance the Hatchet Ridge project.

Brett Hale, building division manager for Shasta County’s Department of Resource Management, said the project is under construction, and foundations for the 280-foot wind turbines are being poured despite tough winter weather conditions at the site’s 5,000 foot elevation. The estimated completion date for Hatchet Ridge is summer, 2010.

Walker said another energy company, La Jolla-based Padoma Wind Power LLC, has expressed interest in a 175 MW wind project along the ridge of the Cascade Range south of Highway 299. Padoma is doing preliminary studies but hasn’t yet begun the formal wind farm application process.

The misfortunes of energy developer OptiSolar have imperiled more than one renewable project in Imperial County and the Central Valley.

The Hayward-based company laid off 290 employees at its Hayward and San Francisco facilities in February, 2009. Two of its solar projects, a 65 MW plant near the Imperial County town of Niland and a 550 MW develoment in the Central Valley, were put on hold as the company searched for a buyer for its energy portfolio.

It found a buyer in First Solar, a successful energy developer that paid $400 million in March, 2009 for OptiSolar’s energy projects. First Solar plans to complete the unfinished installations, but its timetable for development is unknown at this time.

In December, 2009 First Solar began operating a large photovoltaic (PV) solar facility in Blythe, in Riverside County and negotiated a 20-year power purchase agreement to sell electricity to Southern California Edison.

Energy Questions For The Future

California’s legislators, utility companies and energy developers still face the challenge of complying with President Obama’s mandate for a national energy grid that connects states using renewable and traditional sources of electrical power.

Under new legislation AB 811, homeowners can apply for grants for home-based clean energy solutions such as solar cells and insulation. The use of feed-in tariffs may stimulate an increase in private renewable energy usage.

Environmentalists, developers and politicans struggle over use of the Mojave Desert in an effort to preserve wildlife and desert habitat while developing energy projects that will respect the needs of residents and visitors to protected lands.

One thing is certain: renewable energy projects will continue despite financing setbacks and unanswered questions about energy storage and transmission.

Contact Margaret T. Simpson at marga858@gmail.com