Friday, April 13, 2012

Gov. Jerry Brown's Solar Power Campaign

Last summer, Gov. Jerry Brown flew to Blythe, in the California desert, to break ground on the largest solar power project in the world.

There, in a tent near the Arizona border, Uwe T. Schmidt, chairman and chief executive officer of developer Solar Trust of America, proclaimed the "dawn of a new era," and Brown, who has tied his job-creation effort inextricably to renewable energy, said "This is really big."

The project has since faltered. Last year, Solar Trust's parent company, Solar Millennium, filed for bankruptcy in a German court. On Tuesday, solarhybrid AG, the company that moved to buy the project, announced that it, too, is insolvent.

Even as other solar projects move forward, the breakdown in Blythe suggests the technological and financial uncertainties of a still-young industry.

For the Democratic governor, it is a setback to his campaign to create 20,000 new megawatts of renewable electricity by 2020, when utilities are required by a law Brown signed last year to obtain one-third of their electricity from renewable sources.

"It's not for the faint of heart," Brown said of the solar industry Friday at a conference on green energy and the economy. "Scientific and technological progress moves by trial and error."

In a report last month, the California Energy Commission estimated that pending projects could deliver enough electricity to meet Brown's goals by 2020, but it cautioned that success will depend, among other conditions, on the ability of developers to secure financing and permits.

To meet Brown's goals, said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the Energy Commission, is "going to take a lot of substantial effort."

"There are challenges," Weisenmiller said, "but I think we're going to get there."

In addition to the current supply of electricity from renewable sources – about 10,000 megawatts, or 16 percent of the state's total power supply – local and state agencies approved permits for an estimated 16,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects in 2010 and 2011. They expect to permit projects capable of delivering 5,000 megawatts or more this year.

But not all of those projects will succeed. The industry's failure rate is as high as 40 percent, observers estimate. Of those that work, some sputter through ownership and design changes. Part or all of the Blythe project may still be developed, though when and by whom is unclear.

"In theory, the fact that we're having failures is actually a sign that the market's working – that we have some comfort because there's a lot of people out there, and out of this the best projects will probably emerge," said Michael Picker, a senior adviser to Brown on renewable energy.

Tom Georgis, senior vice president of development of Santa Monica-based SolarReserve LLC, which is building a 150-megawatt project north of Blythe, said his company is looking over Solar Millennium, "taking a look at some of their assets to see if it might make sense."

Some of the state's largest projects were approved in 2010, before Brown took office. That year, as developers rushed to meet deadlines for federal incentives for solar projects, the Energy Commission approved nine major solar projects, including the $5 billion, 1,000-megawatt project in Blythe, and a nearly 400-megawatt project, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation System, in the Mojave Desert.

The Ivanpah project is under construction, and its developer, BrightSource Energy, has two projects pending before the Energy Commission.

California is not unaccustomed to a governor promoting renewable energy – Brown's predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed Assembly Bill 32, California's landmark greenhouse gas reduction law. Joe Desmond, a former commission chairman and an executive at BrightSource, said Brown is "taking it up a notch."

Even projects that move forward, however, do not do so without difficulties. Many are delayed by land-use disputes or by environmental concerns, including kit fox and desert tortoise habitat.

"We had to do an analysis of the flora and fauna, so we're out doing studies for ground squirrels nobody's seen," said Jim Ledford, the mayor of Palmdale, whose 570-megawatt hybrid power plant project was approved by the Energy Commission last year and is awaiting an investor. "Who knows what would happen if we found one."

Of Brown's goal of creating 20,000 megawatts of renewable electricity, 12,000 megawatts are to come from on-site or small energy systems, about four times the current supply from small-scale projects.

If state programs to support the development of those projects are "fully successful," the Energy Commission said in its report, the state could add 6,200 more megawatts in the next five to eight years.

The report said "more information is needed to assess the legitimacy of the targets."

Brown's administration is pursuing the installation of photovoltaic panels at fairgrounds, prisons and along California highways. A highway project in Santa Clara County is in development, officials said, though the Sacramento Municipal Utility District announced in October that it was shelving a similar project because of the cost.

No project, however, was bigger than Blythe, which could have provided enough electricity to power about 300,000 homes. It is instead providing critics a high-profile example of failure.

While California remains ahead of other states in solar production, Brown was dogged for weeks following the meltdown of panel-maker Solyndra, and President Barack Obama still is defending his renewable energy investments from many Republicans who contend that government investment in solar technology is too great in an unproven industry.

In an onstage interview at the conference Friday, just outside Santa Barbara, Brown was asked again about Solyndra.

"I thought failure was part of the process," he said to applause. "So you back things, and maybe they work, and maybe they don't. We're moving ahead."

Neither Solar Trust nor solarhybrid AG returned telephone calls or email messages this week. David Lane, Blythe's city manager, had no details.

But two other solar projects in the area already are under construction, he said, and the local community college is training people to work in the industry. People arriving to take jobs on the projects have filled up the local KOA, Lane said.

"We're very optimistic," he said, "that this is the next big thing that's going to make something of this town."

"It's not for the faint of heart. Scientific and technological progress moves by trial and error."


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