California Resting on Green Laurels

By Paul Gipe


California’s Solar Scorecard

By THE EDITORS (New York Times)

Paul Gipe

The Golden State has long had a reputation as a leader in renewable energy development. California’s accomplishments in the 1980s have taken on legendary status among renewable energy advocates. Unfortunately, California has lived off that reputation ever since.

Yes, last year California installed more solar photovoltaics than any other state or province in North America. While certainly commendable, it serves only to illustrate how far the state, as well as the entire North American continent, continues to fall behind in the race to develop renewable energy and the jobs it entails.

There are now some 700 megawatts of solar PV in the state. This is in contrast to Germany, with one fifth less land area than California, where there are 8,000 megawatts in operation­ ­ more than 10 times that in sunny California.

Similarly, Spain has installed 3,000 MW of solar PV within a few short years. In many ways Spain is similar to California. Both have a Mediterranean climate. Both have about the same population. But Spain now generates 3 percent of its electricity with solar PV, four to five times more than that in California.

The story is the same with wind energy. Germany operates 10 times more wind capacity than California, though the Golden State pioneered modern wind energy. Spain now generates more than 10 percent of its electricity with wind energy, California only 2 percent. Even tiny Denmark, population five million, operates nearly 30 percent more wind capacity than California does, producing more than 20 percent of its electricity supply.

In almost every measure, California fails to live up to its claim as a leader in renewable energy. Despite the much heralded Renewable Portfolio Standard passed earlier in the 2000s, the percentage of electricity supplied by renewable energy in the state continues to fall. Renewable energy development is not even keeping pace with population growth.

The situation has gotten so bad that the California Energy Commission has issued a series of successive reports warning that the state will not meet its renewable energy targets unless it takes drastic action.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Business Council released a hard-hitting report in early April charging in effect that the “emperor has no clothes.” The Business Council concluded that if Los Angeles, and by extension California, want to meet their renewable energy targets, policies must be re-oriented.

Both the energy commission and the Business Council argue that there’s no choice for the state but to move to a system of feed-in tariffs like that used in Germany, France, Spain and now even Britain.

Ontario moved to a system of feed-in tariffs in late 2009. The Canadian province recently signed contracts for $9 billion in private investment and almost 20 percent of that was for projects owned by indigenous people, homeowners and community groups.

What are feed-in tariffs? They are simply payment for the generation of electricity. They are not net-metering, or “running your meter backward.” A homeowner with a solar PV system on the roof is paid for every kilowatt hour the household generates.

Sierra Club California, the state’s largest environmental group, argues that well-crafted feed-in tariffs are based on the cost of generation plus a reasonable profit, differentiated by technology and size, and entail long-term contracts of 20 to 25 years.

Thus, solar PV is paid one price, wind energy another, and so on.

Feed-in tariffs, testified Sierra Club California in a filing with the state’s Air Resources Board on how California can meet its targets, “have demonstrated that they successfully bring renewables on-line quickly, in volume, and at a lower-cost” than any other policy.

Terry Tamminen, one-time adviser to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, says that feed-in tariffs in California would “turn homes, farms, and businesses into entrepreneurs who will accelerate our path to clean energy.”

If government regulators, business groups, environmental activists, and leading figures in the Republican party are all in agreement that feed-in tariffs can help California live up to its reputation, maybe the state has reached a tipping point and is ready to take the decisive action needed to regain it’s long-lost renewable energy crown.