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Friday, April 22, 2011

California PV: at what price?

With Gov. Brown’s assent, the California legislature has formalized the 33% in 2020 Renewable Portfolio Standard imposed by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Even without a feed-in tariff, the state is marching towards having more RE usage than the rest of the US or Western Europe.

A quick glance at the California Solar Initiative data — back when the CSI incentives were relevant — shows that residential solar is relatively inconsequential in the state’s RE energy footprint. The real action is on large commercial and utility scale installations.

Last year saw a huge rush of utility scale plants being started in the Mojave before before federal subsidies expired.

However, energy writer Richard Nemec wonders whether these plants ever made economic sense. Earlier this week he wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News:
nine projects were given the green light, collectively totaling enough megawatts to equal about two San Onofre nuclear plants. Three months into 2011, however, two of the largest projects slated for the Southern California desert regions have been sold, utility contracts canceled and their futures put in doubt.

To date, three of the major projects are under construction, but a lot of that work is preliminary, awaiting more complete financial backing.
In addition to problems completing projects, there is also the price that the utilities (and thus businesses and consumers) will be paying for their power:
The state regulatory commission's consumer unit report concluded that approved solar contracts for the state's major private-sector utilities have collectively been about $100 million overpriced. This sort of largess does no one any good.
One reason for paying inflated prices is the RPS standard. Another is the expiring federal subsidies which caused firms to rush deals to regulatory approval before key issues were resolved.

This is perhaps the Achilles heel of utility scale: the small-numbers irrationality. When you have nine deals, it takes only a few bad decisions to have one-third or half of the projects collapse.

For residential and small commercial, some owners may behave irrationally, but in the long run we’ll expect buyers to act in their own self-interest: if the systems make sense, people will buy them and if they don’t, they won’t. (Yes, some consumers will pay a green premium to save the planet, but most probably won’t.)

The CPUC report looked at 184 projects — you would think enough to see a pattern in the proposals, and perhaps for the industry to figure out what’s feasible and not feasible. But I think the combination of RPS and federal subsidy deadlines induced an irrationality into the process.

The legislature (and the new governor) has made it clear that it wants more RE power used in the state. It remains to be seen whether they will pay attention to the inherent flaws in their mandated approach — rushing adoption ahead of grid parity — or will just ignore the wasted millions (if not billions) because it doesn’t show up as a tax that they can be blamed for.

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