Is California Policy Squelching Western Geothermal?

Geysers at Nevada's Beowawe geothermal field | Photo: Jack Quade, Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology

As we've reported here before, California's stated renewable energy policy is to avoid importing renewable power from neighboring states. California's governor's office has put itself on record as favoring building in-state generating capacity, and downplaying the building of new interstate transmission lines that could bring renewable power in from Nevada, Arizona, and states farther east.

This policy hasn't gone over all that well in nearby states that had been hoping to sell power to Californian utilities. As Charles Thurston reports today in Renewable Energy World, geothermal interests are among those who're unhappy with the policy -- even though a "locals-only" policy might benefit California geothermal interests in the longer term.

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Thurston reports on discussion at the National Geothermal Summit, held August 7 in Sacramento, at which industry representatives blamed a current malaise in their industry on insufficient interstate transmission, as well as on-utility preference for nominally cheaper wind and solar generating capacity. Utilities have been racing to meet state Renewable Portfolio Standard requirements that they derive 33% of their power from renewable sources by 2020, and emphasizing wind and solar can help them meet that simple percentage benchmark more economically than investing in geothermal.

Geothermal, however, isn't intermittent the way solar and wind are: alone among emerging renewables, it's a source of base load power that can meet our energy demand even when the sun goes down and the wind stops. But utilities eager to fill up their percentages as cheaply as possible are reluctant to sign up for geothermal power purchase agreements (PPAs) that might be somewhat more expensive on a per-kilowatt-hour basis.

The geothermal industry is concentrated in a very few corporate hands; companies who operate California geothermal facilities are likely to have significant investments in Nevada facilities as well, decreasing the attractiveness of California's in-state preference. Though California-based facilities might see greater demand under Brown's policy, their owners stand to lose as much in sales from Nevada as they might gain in California. OR so the sentiment seems to run.

Thurston reports that at least one California leader is outspoken in opposition to new transmission lines for out of state geothermal, and -- rather unsurprisingly -- that leader represents one of the state's largest geothermal districts. California Assembly member V. Manuel Perez, whose 80th Assembly district includes the Salton Basin Geothermal Field, opposed new border-crossing transmission lines at the summit in no uncertain terms. "Why do we have geothermal energy imported into California? We have 3,400 megawatts of potential geothermal energy in the Salton Sea area." Perez would like to block new transmission from geothermal centers in Nevada, Thurston reports, and cites the high unemployment in his district as a compelling reason for keeping development local.

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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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