California to Western States: Keep Your Renewables

Please leave your citrus fruit and solar power at home. | Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr/Creative Commons License

For the last few years California has been telling neighboring states that they shouldn't bank on selling renewable power to the West's most populous state. It's taken a while, but it looks as though the message is starting to sink in.

According to a story in yesterday's Las Vegas Review Journal, Nevada Senator Harry Reid is now pressuring the Silver State's largest utility, NV Energy, to agree to buy solar electricity from a planned photovoltaic installation and solar panel factory outside of Laughlin. The $5 billion Chinese-backed ENN Mojave Energy project was drafted on the assumption that it would supply power to California utilities. Reid's leaning on NV Energy shows that Nevada's powers-that-be have realized that isn't going to happen.

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The Nevada utility is reluctant to commit to buying power from ENN Mojave Energy because it's already met the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). NV Energy derives 15% of its power from renewable sources, including the recently launched First Solar Silver State project astride the California line in the Ivanpah Valley and -- when it's completed -- the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Tonopah.


It's understandable that western states would think of California as a potential customer for renewable energy. California consumes about 259,000 gigawatt-hours of power a year, more than the states of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho, and Wyoming combined.

The problem is that California's Renewable Portfolio Standard introduces a significant obstacle to power imports from other states. Tracking the percentage of each utility's power that comes from renewables is nearly impossible unless the power source is directly hooked up to California's grid. The only suitable way to track out-of-state energy is to use a process called "dynamic transfer," defined by smartgrid.gov as:

The provision of the real-time monitoring, telemetering, computer software, hardware, communications, engineering, energy accounting (including inadvertent interchange), and administration required to electronically move all or a portion of the real energy services associated with a generator or load out of one Balancing Authority Area into another.

The procedure is apparently as complex and hard to understand as that last sentence is, and western grid operators are reluctant to engage in it. This effectively seals California off from most out-of-state renewable generation. Some "foreign" renewable energy does enter the state: for instance, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) buys some wind-generated power from Utah. Then again, as a public utility LADWP is only informally subject to the state's RPS goals, so tracking Utah wind power isn't as much of a concern.

Though the technical demands of the RPS law provide an effective de facto barrier to renewable imports, the restriction is also part of the state's formal renewable energy policy. Though former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was opposed to limits on renewables imports, and vetoed a version of the RPS law that would have limited them even more strictly, his successor favors keeping California self-sufficient in renewable energy. A year ago this week, Jerry Brown's aide Michael Picker wrote a letter on behalf of the governor to the western Energy Coordinating Council (WECC) spelling out the state's objections to importing renewables. (WECC is an oversight body that manages the western grid at the regional level.)

Among the Governor's problems with renewables imports, Picker listed the cost and unreliability of long-distance transmission, as well as the relative inflexibility of the western grid. The letter was friendly and collegial, but its message was unmistakable: Western states are planning their energy futures based on the California of a decade ago, which was way behind on renewables. California is now developing renewables aggressively. The western grid should be updated so that dynamic transfer and short-term energy exchanges are much easier, but that's because California plans to sell its own renewables out of state, not the other way around.

And so the handwriting has been on the wall for some time: California isn't buying. It's taken a while for other states to listen, however. Especially Nevada. A resource colony of California since before it became a state, Nevada has long been locked into the kind of love-hate relationship with its western neighbor that only a completely economically dependent trading partner truly knows. This was true when the silver mines made a few San Franciscans fabulously wealthy. It was true when Hoover Dam began operating under the control of LADWP and Southern California Edison. It was true when economic reversals in Los Angeles shoved Las Vegas' economy over the edge.

In the first years of the new push for renewables, plans were rife to develop generating capacity in Nevada so that the state could sell power to Californians. These ranged from huge solar power facilities in the southern deserts to new biomass power plants that would have been fueled by the state's piñon and juniper forests. With California having cut off that potential source of income, Nevada companies are going to have to try to make their business plans work serving that state's far more modest demand for power. It won't be an easy sell, but a more decentralized power generation infrastructure will put us that much closer to a truly smart grid.

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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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In Wyoming there's that plan -- backed by the Obama administration and close to getting environmental clearance -- to build the biggest wind farm in the world. Some of the power could go to Colorado, apparently, but I believe the developers think they can sell the bulk of it to California utilities. Think they'll be able to? Reckon they'll need some wires to move it west, too...