By D.A. Barber
If California - the most populous U.S. state - was a country, it would rank the 8th largest economy between Italy and Brazil. But California is by far America's No. 1 solar state, with nearly 1,000 megawatts of rooftop panels installed and 14 utility-scale solar plants in the construction pipeline. This rapid growth of solar power is expected to continue in California as utilities comply with a state law requiring 33 percent of the state's electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. By 2030, solar is projected to account for 16 to 18 percent of the state's electricity consumption, according to the California Energy Commission. With the solar projects that are currently under way, as much as 7.5GW in PV capacity could be added to the local power grid by 2015. That would be more than half the state’s announced goal of achieving 12GW - enough to power roughly 3 million homes - from all renewable sources five years sooner than the targeted 2020 deadline.
California’s solar industry momentum for residential installations is also expected to continue despite the bad publicity it received from a political scandal surrounding the bankruptcy of California-based solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which closed after receiving a $535-million federal loan guarantee.
But California will have to accelerate the use of utility-scale renewable power to meet its aggressive 33 percent renewable portfolio standard since California's population is expected to surge from 37 million to 55 million in the next 40 years and the demand for energy is expected to double.
Some help came on October 4, 2011, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law to exempt some solar projects from environmental reviews and shorten permit times to avoid costly and repetitive permitting. Under the new law, installation of PV systems on the roofs of existing buildings or parking lots will also be exempt from state environmental quality reviews, as well as allow the California Energy Commission to continue reviewing a solar project when it switches technology from solar thermal to PV.
But a study released in November 2011 by the Communications Institute, a Los Angeles think tank, gives a cautious view of California's solar prospects. The report notes that while the state's solar production will increase nearly nine-fold in the next quarter-century, that gain would do little to reduce the state's dependence on fossil fuels because of higher energy consumption brought on by the growing population and the energy needs of an expanding economy. The report, Powering California: Assessing California's Energy Future, estimates that solar power will fill less than 1 percent of the state's electrical demand in 2035 due to the overall growth in the state’s energy demand.
California ranks #1 for several solar milestones in the U.S. The state has among the highest solar insolation levels in the U.S as measured by NASA. The Los Angeles area ranks 2nd only to Honolulu and higher than Phoenix, Arizona. This has prompted nearly a dozen large-scale solar projects in the Mohave Desert, east of Los Angeles.
One in four solar energy jobs in the U.S. are currently found in California, according to the National Solar Jobs Census 2011 released in October 2011 by Washington-based Solar Foundation. In August 2011, California had an estimated 25,575 of the 100,237 U.S. solar jobs, four times greater than #2 Colorado, with 6,186 solar jobs. Nationally, employment in all parts of the solar industry grew 6.8 percent from the prior August compared to overall U.S. job growth of less than 1 percent, according to the study.
California also ranked 1st in the U.S. for solar-generated electricity from both PV and CSP.
For 2011, California is expected to top out at a total of 967MW of newly installed solar while in 2012 the state is expected to generate some 1.2GW, which is more PV capacity than the next six-highest states combined.
Today, California accounts for 61 percent of the total U.S. solar projects in the pipeline and the state hosts at least 27 firms engaged in solar-related activities, including production of ingots, crystalline silicon cells, PV modules, and thin-film cells and modules. That does not include the numerous firms, universities, and institutions engaged in solar research and development.
Trend in Annual Installed Capacity by Program
3 Million Rooftops
Currently the biggest PV project within the state is the Topaz Solar farm, a 550-MW power plant being built by Arizona-based First Solar Inc. northwest of Los Angeles. But the smaller PV projects are a large part of the state’s solar market as well.
California’s $3.3-billion initiative to put PV panels on 3 million rooftops by 2016 is on track, according to a report released in November 2011 by Environment California. The initiative has spurred installation of over 800MW of rooftop PVs over the last five years, producing the energy equivalent of two natural gas-burning power plants. The state’s goal is to reach 3,000MW of rooftop solar by 2016.
In June 2011, California Governor Jerry Brown also signed a law broadening the state’s solar tax incentives and protecting new, creative ways of financing residential solar systems sold through leasing arrangements. The changes also apply to solar systems “that are constructed as freestanding or parking lot canopies or that are constructed as installations on existing buildings.” The non-profit California Center for Sustainable Energy (CCSE) has also been offering technical assistance and financial incentives to encourage solar roof-top installations
California’s Solar Utilities
At the close of 2010, Southern California Edison (SCE) achieved 19.4 percent, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) 17.7 percent, and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) 11.9 percent toward their now 33 percent mandate, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. Prior to the new mandate, utilities were required to reach 20 percent by 2010.
PG&E recently announced three power purchase agreements with solar developers that will collectively have 50MW of capacity as part of a 500-MW program in which PG&E will own 250MW of solar projects and buy power from another 250MW. The three developers - Recurrent Energy, Westlands Solar Farms and Fotowatio Renewable Ventures - will start delivering PG&E electricity in 2013.
On November 29, 2011, Southern California Edison and BrightSource Energy added storage capabilities to three of their power purchase agreements, which collectively represent the largest solar storage deal in the world. The contracts include two of BrightSource’s solar thermal plants scheduled to go online in 2015 and three BrightSource plants operating by 2016 and 2017. BrightSource, with its partners – NRG Energy, Google, and Bechtel - are currently constructing a 126-MW plant for SCE at the Ivanpah solar project in the Mohave Desert.
While San Diego Gas & Electric has lagged behind the others, the utility has signed contracts totaling 1,225 MW since January 2011, mostly for solar. Soitec, one of the project developers with SDG&E, has also announced plans to build a factory in the San Diego area to supply the equipment for these power projects.
California Solar Initiative
In January 2007, California began a $3.3 billion effort to install 3,000 MW of new solar over the next decade. By the close of 2010, solar panels installed in the state generated 194MW of power, according to the annual report from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Today, California produces 924MW megawatts at 94,891 sites across the state. The California Solar Initiative Program is the largest U.S. solar program with a $2.2 billion budget and a goal of 1,940 MW of solar capacity by the end of 2016. Highlights of CPUC's California Solar Initiative annual report in June 2011 include:
• Californians installed 194MW of new solar electric generating equipment in 2010, an increase of 47 percent over capacity installed in 2009.
• Of the 924MW installed, 746MW were installed at 77,461 customer sites in the service territories of the state’s investor-owned utilities.
• The CSI Program received applications for 425MW of PV projects in 2010, more than twice the solar applications received in any previous year of the program.
• The CSI Program is achieving its goal of reducing the cost of installed PV equipment: For systems smaller than 10kW, inflation-adjusted prices have declined from $10.45/watt to $8.55/watt since the start of the program, a cost reduction of 18 percent. For systems larger than 10kW, prices have dropped from $9.18/watt to $6.71/watt, a 27 percent cost reduction.
• Since its creation in October 2008, the Multi-family Affordable Solar Housing program has been such a hit that many of the incentives have been fully allocated, and there is a waiting list to participate in the program.
• The CPUC awarded grants worth a total of $24 million to 17 Research and Development projects aimed at improving solar electric generating technologies, reducing the cost of equipment, and facilitating better integration of solar into the electric grid.
Public Agencies Go Solar
As energy costs continue to soar, cash-strapped public agencies throughout California have turned to solar power to save money on their electric bills. The City of San Diego is already an established solar leader among American cities with more than 6,700 solar installations totaling just over 90MW, ranking 1st and 2nd in California respectively.
On December 1, 2011, the Housing Authority of the County of San Bernardino (HACSB) and HelioPower, announced the completion of the largest Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) Track 2 grant project in California: a 296 housing unit community of over 1,100 residents. In late 2010, Southern California Edison awarded its first and largest MASH Track 2 Grant ($1,840,000) to the HACSB project, which incorporates 100 solar rooftop retrofits.
In San Diego County, officials flipped the switch in late November 2011 on a solar installation that will provide 14 percent of the power needed for East Mesa Detention Complex, which is expected to save the county $1.4 million in power costs over the next 20 years. The project’s developer, SunEdison, has also installed solar at other prisons, jails, and universities throughout the state, including a 5MW system at North Kern State Prison in the Bakersfield area and a prison in the high desert of Los Angeles County.
California in the Cross-Hairs
Solar is likely to account for a great portion of California’s renewable energy despite the scrutiny on solar energy in California - and the U.S. – that has been fueled by the recent bankruptcy of California-based Solyndra Inc. The fact is, renewable energy in general is under political siege in the U.S. by many in Congress who favor expanding domestic fossil fuel development. But solar advocates note that oil and gas reserves will eventually dwindle and California has become the battle ground to continue solar energy development.
Analysts have blamed California-based Solyndra's failure on the cost of their PV panels, which couldn't compete with cheaper Chinese imports. But the Solyndra episode could prove beneficial to California’s solar industry because it has drawn attention to rapidly falling PV prices which will help push expansion of rooftop solar for more homeowners and businesses, according to the Environment California report.