News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

ReWire's Most Important Stories of 2013

Solar flux injury to wildlife, first noted in the 1980s at the Solar One plant in Daggett, became a big issue in 2013 | Photo: IRN/Flickr/Creative Commons License

On Wednesday we brought you the 10 most-visited stories ReWire has published so far this year. But the stories that bring the most eyeballs aren't always the stories that have the most impact. And sometimes a story takes a whole lot of individual blog posts to tell.

How do you measure impact if not in the number of visits? You do so by how a story helps shape the reaction to an issue. In 2013 we heard from readers, from staff of Federal, state, and local agencies, from utility company representatives and startup CEOs, and from activists on both the renewable energy and wildlife protection sides of the environmental movement. Not everyone we talked to was thrilled with our coverage, but we did definitely get the sense that ReWire has shaped conversations on a number of issues.

Here, then, are -- in our view, and in roughly ascending order of weight -- the five most important stories ReWire worked on in 2013. Each of them will likely continue to be important through 2014.

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5) California's carbon cap and trade program, the groundbreaking greenhouse gas emissions credit trading system managed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), started the year by surviving a court challenge by environmental groups. It ended the year surviving a similar challenge from a group all the way on the other end of the spectrum, the California Chamber of Commerce. In between, the program --- under which large industrial emitters of greenhouse gases must buy permits to emit those gases -- started hooking up with similar programs in Quebec and Australia, with the aim of making as large an emissions trading market as possible. There were also hints in 2013 that the states of Oregon and Washington and the province of British Columbia may join the California carbon trading crowd. The program isn't without its critics, especially with regard to CARB's potential use of offsets. But the forbiddingly wonky auction seems like it'll be part of the California regulatory landscape from now on.

4) The problem of power storage continued to transfix energy activists and regulators in 2013. Wind dies down and the sun sets, and when that happens wind and solar power generators stop generating. That's a problem. Electrical power is immediate. In order to generate it now and use it later you need to come up with some way to store the energy. While we can store very small amounts of electrical power directly in supercapacitors, saving larger amounts of power requires other methods, like batteries, pumping water uphill or saving solar energy as heat to drive turbines after the sun goes down.

Storage was a huge issue for California regulators in 2013. The only reason the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved what it thought was too-expensive power purchases from BrightSource Energy's now dormant Rio Mesa solar project was that BrightSource had told the CPUC that building Rio Mesa was a necessary step in working up to adding thermal storage to its projects. With that project out of the pipeline, the state had to turn to other means to promote power storage. Most notably, the CPUC in October mandated that utilities have to add 1,300 megawatts of power storage to the state's grid, though -- as ReWire pointed out -- there's a variable missing from that mandate. And the state's still examining the notion of using excess energy to pump water into a huge reservoir near Joshua Tree National Park, then letting it flow downhill when we need the power -- likely at significant cost to the Park's wildlife.

Power storage isn't just happening on the grid: individual power consumers in homes and businesses are increasingly turning to banks of batteries in order to save some of their locally generated power. Enough, that is, to make utilities a little nervous.

3) Solar thermal on life support: There are two basic ways to make electricity from sunshine: harness it directly through photovoltaic semiconductors like the ones on an increasing number of California rooftops, or concentrate that sunlight and use it to heat up a fluid that then drives a generator. Solar thermal offers the advantage of making thermal storage a possibility, as seems to be happening at the Solana plant near Gila Bend, Arizona. But that may well be the only real advantage solar thermal power offers. Photovoltaic panels can be installed in increments from a few watts (as in household appliance chargers) to hundreds of megawatts, while solar thermal pretty much requires you get big or get out. That means more red tape, more environmental impact, more up-front investment, and more costs for pretty much everything except labor -- and PV advocates can easily spin those labor costs as job creation.

In 2013, despite billions of dollars in investment and state and federal agencies streamlining permitting processes, solar thermal provided less than 15 percent of the power that photovoltaics did to the utility side of the California grid. That percentage will rise somewhat in 2014, as both the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System and Genesis Solar Project are slated to start producing power early in the year. And that's pretty much it for solar thermal projects in the pipeline, aside from Solar Reserve's power tower project at Rice, California, approved for three years and as yet unbuilt due to lack of funding.

It's hard to come up with a better symbolic example of solar thermal's malaise than last week's proposed decisions on two large solar projects by the California Energy Commission (CEC). Both projects were once owned by the solar thermal company Solar Millennium, which went under as a result of plummeting PV prices. One project -- the Blythe Solar Power Project -- was redesigned by NextEra Energy Resources as a photovoltaic project, and it looks likely to win CEC approval. The other -- the Palen Solar Electric Generating System -- was redesigned by BrightSource Energy as a power tower thermal project. Unless the CEC overrules its Commissioner Karen Douglas' recommendation, which would be surprising, that project has been sent back to the drawing board.

2) Renewable energy and wildlife: This is the story -- or complex web of interrelating stories -- with which ReWire has become most closely associated in many readers' minds. It's also the story for which we've taken the most heat in comments here and in social media. But you can be a stalwart advocate of renewable energy and still harbor serious concerns over the way our implementation of renewable energy harms the very environment we're supposed to be protecting.

When we started ReWire in 2012, there were two big renewable energy and wildlife issues most people who paid attention knew about. We knew that wind turbines could do serious damage to flying wildlife. We also knew that removing wildlife habitat for desert solar facilities meant harm to the wildlife that used that habitat. The desert tortoise is the canonical example.

Wind turbines' effects on birds and bats continue, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently made news by offering wind developers 30-year permits to kill bald and golden eagles with their machines. That capped a year in which USFWS issued the first-ever wind turbine take permits for the critically endangered California condor.

And harm to desert tortoises and other terrestrial wildlife continues unabated from solar development, as we saw late this year.

But two new sources of harm to wildlife from renewable energy generation became big news this year. Those new dangers are concentrated solar flux, which can cause birds, bats and insects serious burn damage as they fly near power tower solar facilities, and the so-called "lake effect" problem, in which thousands of acres of PV panels or mirrors appear to be open water, luring water birds in to their peril.

As a partial result of our reporting, federal and state agencies are taking both new threats far more seriously, which may well have played a role in the above-mentioned proposed rejection of the Palen Solar Electric Generating System by the CEC.

We're proud of our work on wildlife issues. They're a serious and unnecessary consequence of making the wrong decisions in switching over to renewable energy. And until certain agencies make that reporting unnecessary by starting to do their jobs, it looks like we'll continue in 2014.

1) The war on rooftop solar: it's long been our contention here at ReWire that distributed generation of renewable energy is one of the best ways to address the climate issue: it's faster, cheaper, safer, and more democratic. It also poses a threat to utilities' traditional business plans, in which they sell the energy to us and we buy it from them.

As we've reported this year, the implied conflict between utilities and rooftop solar has been heating up. The fight began long before January 1, 2013, with SDG&E's abortive attempt a few years ago to charge its rooftop solar customers a grid access fee. The argument: utilities must maintain their part of the grid, and they raise funds to do so by charging ratepayers for the electricity they use. If a rooftop solar owner zeroes out her electric bill but still turns her lights on after the sun goes down, she's using the grid without paying her fair share.

That's the utilities' argument, anyway. Groups like Vote Solar point out that rooftop solar owners also reduce other ratepayers' need to shell out billions of dollars for new power plants and transmission.

The utilities' POV is now, to some degree, reflected in state law: a bill passed by the legislature this year allows the CPUC to set a monthly "grid service" fee of up to $10 per electric meter. Opposed by many renewable energy groups, the fee may actually undercut utility opposition to rooftop solar in California by depriving them of their main argument. The bill also removed caps on net metering for rooftop solar.

Outside California, the battle rages fiercely. Arizona's largest utility has been caught funding right-wing groups to run astroturf campaigns agains net metering and rooftop solar, a tough job in a state where many of the resident Goldwater conservatives cherish their household energy independence.

Late in 2013 the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group, stepped into the fray in Arizona to defend business as is no longer usual for utilities. And in the last weeks of the year, Vote Solar reported that the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful ultraconservative thinktank, has decided to make rooftop solar and net metering one of its causes for 2014.

In other words, some of the country's richest, most powerful corporate bodies have decided to fight the fastest, cheapest, most effective way we have to fight climate change. We expect we'll be paying plenty of attention to this issue in 2014.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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