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The Sacramento Bee


Is Brown's Ambitious Renewable Energy Goal a Worthwhile Pursuit?

July 27, 2011

By Ben Boychuk

THE ISSUE: “The future of energy is not Texas oil; it’s California sun,” Gov. Jerry Brown said, and he set a goal of producing one-third of current peak electricity use of 65,000 megawatts from renewable resources by 2020 – 12,000 megawatts from localized generation and 8,000 megawatts from large-scale projects.

Is Brown’s ambitious renewable energy goal a worthwhile pursuit?

Pia Lopez: Eminently worthwhile

Californians are smart to shift away from dependence on imported oil, for national security and environmental reasons.

Gov. Jerry Brown is no newcomer to the task. When he was governor from 1975 to 1983, California adopted the nation’s first appliance and building efficiency standards – with huge savings. Now he seeks to build on that record, embracing ambitious renewable energy generation goals that reduce reliance on large oil-fired power plants.

This is doable. Germany, for example, gets 17 percent of its electricity from wind, hydroelectric, solar and biogas. Renewables generated more electricity last year than gas-fired power plants – and nearly as much as hard coal. Germany is on its way to getting 39 percent of its electricity supply from renewable energy by 2020, with a goal of 100 percent by 2050.

Germany set a new world record installing 7,400 megawatts of solar power last year. Yes, it can be done.

Brown’s goal is 12,000 megawatts by 2020 from small-scale localized renewable energy projects – such as solar projects on rooftops and in parking lots – so families and businesses can power lights, cooling systems and appliances.

Projects on “brownfields” and highway right-of-ways also would be part of the mix – such as SMUD’s solar proposals at the Aerojet Superfund site and on the Highway 50 right-of-way in Sacramento, avoiding prime farmland.

The idea is to decentralize electricity generation, decreasing the load on the traditional power grid.

Larger-scale renewable projects are tougher. Brown seeks 8,000 megawatts by 2020. In 2010, the California Energy Commission certified nine solar thermal power plants for 4,180 megawatts.

What happens if the sun doesn’t shine or the wind dies down? That requires updating the grid system to respond flexibly to changing weather conditions. As materials for the governor’s two-day conference this week at UCLA pointed out, “power systems around the world are successfully accommodating variable generation at levels of penetration that were deemed to be impossible by many, even just a few years ago.”

No one expects that jobs for solar installers or home energy retrofitters will replace all 244,000 jobs lost with the construction industry collapse between 2008 and 2011. But they will help California diversify its economy.

California should remain on the cutting edge of energy efficiency research and design – appliances, meters, batteries, recycling machinery – services and products that we can provide to the world.

Achieving the goal of 20,000 megawatts from renewables is a matter of vision, will and persistence.

Ben Boychuk: A beautiful fantasy

Everybody loves renewable energy in concept. We will have unlimited electricity from the sun and the wind! And it will cost virtually nothing! Who could possibly complain?

But faced with the reality of renewable energy – the sheer size and scope of what’s necessary to power life in California in the 21st century – the green dream is a bit of a waking nightmare.

Trouble is, solar and wind power requires space, and plenty of it.

Consider the Carrizo Plains. SunPower, a San Jose-based solar energy firm, would love to build a 250-megawatt network of solar panels over 4,685 acres – that’s about 7.3 square miles – just east of San Luis Obispo. By comparison, the Southern California city of Anaheim is building a 200-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant that will occupy a little less than 10 acres in an industrial zone.

Anaheim’s plant will come online later this year. The Carrizo Plains project may never come to fruition. In May, a coalition of environmentalist groups filed a lawsuit attempting to block construction, alleging SunPower violated the California Environmental Quality Act and didn’t perform a proper environmental impact study.

The plaintiffs note, quite correctly, that the plains are “one of the last remaining wild grassland areas in California” and the project would almost certainly impinge upon the habitat of several threatened or endangered species. Although humans may sparsely populate the Carrizo Plains, the place is well populated with rare wildflowers, kangaroo rats, kit foxes and other critters.

Of course, the same could be said of most any piece of open land in the Golden State, even the most godforsaken stretch of desert.

BrightSource Energy Inc., another solar generator, is in the midst of a dispute with environmentalists and the federal Bureau of Land Management over the company’s partially completed 370-megawatt, 4,065-acre project in the Ivanpah Valley in the southeastern part of the state. Evidently, those solar panels are cooking too many endangered desert tortoises.

Assuming these projects eventually overcome the legal roadblocks, all of that clean, green power will need to move from the middle of nowhere to where most of us live. Building new transmission lines through sensitive habitat will invite more lawsuits and result in more delays.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal is more of an aspiration predicated on wishful thinking. But, then again, so is much of the talk about renewable energy. Green power will never be green enough for the environmental lobby.

Original Source:



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