California Utilities Scramble To Meet Solar Mandate, Sacramento Already There

Driven to move solar, wind and regional clean energy progress forward, California pass a law requiring all utility companies to purchase 20% of their power from solar or other renewable sources by 2013. By 2020 it is 33% solar and other renewable sources. Most California utility companies are scrambling to meet those deadlines, except Sacramento’s municipal utility company.

Already ahead of the curve, Sacramento is already on pace having made a commitment to solar and clean energy years ago. The flip side of being a solar hero, Sacramento will not enjoy the job growth other parts of the state are having as a result of the solar renewable energy law. In Sacramento, the local utility is already so “green” that it has met state requirements to use renewable power sources.

In a story in the Fresno Bee, Elisabeth Brinton, a spokes woman for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District said, “We do not need to build or buy any new power for the next several years”. “We’re not focusing on new developments now.”

San Diego Gas & Electric said its solar renewable program will help create 1,900 to 2,000 construction jobs and 300 to 350 permanent jobs over the next three years.

The massive Blythe Solar Power Project in the Mojave Desert will create more than 2,000 construction jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs while boosting economic activity for everything from hardware stores to hotels and restaurants in the area.

“This solar boom, is similar to a lumber town … or Boulder City when they built Hoover Dam,” said Blythe’s Mayor David Lane. In the city of Avenal near Fresno, a 45-megawatt solar project planned by Eurus Energy America and NRG Solar is expected to employ about 200 workers welcome news in a farming town where the unemployment rate is running about 23 percent.

“There’s a sense of excitement about the solar projects. People are beginning to believe that agriculture will not be the end-all for jobs in this region,” said David Castillo, director of the Westside Institute of Technology, the vocational arm of Coalinga’s West Hills Community College District.

Despite high hopes that Sacramento will become a solar clean energy hub, the region isn’t producing green jobs on a scale large enough to transform the region’s government and construction-dependent economy. And it may be losing ground to competitors.

Clean Edge, a Northwest based green energy consulting and publishing firm, noted that Sacramento’s ranking for solar and green-tech job activity has dropped from 10th best in the country in 2009 to 15th this year.

“Solar development is not yet ‘the thing’ that’s pulling us out of this downturn,” said Robin Purdy, deputy director of work force development for the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency.

When it comes to solar and being green, SMUD is an industry leader. It produces about 23 percent of its electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources more than any other utility in the state, and more than enough to meet state requirements for 2013.

By contrast other California companies, San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. receive about 14 percent of their power from solar and other renewable sources, while Southern California Edison is at 17.4 percent solar. SMUD’s success has eliminated the need for new solar deals.

In August, the Van Vleck Ranch in east Sacramento County and San Francisco-based ClearPeak Power LLC announced plans to build a $50 million solar farm in Rancho Murieta that could create as many as 200 new green jobs. But the solar project faces difficulties getting off the ground because the developers have been unable to reach a solar power purchase agreement with SMUD. They also don’t have a deal with the local utility that would allow them to export the solar generated energy they produce to other California utilities at competitive prices.

A solar farm that’s being pursued by the city of Sacramento and German solar energy developer Conergy Projects Inc. at the city’s 28th Street landfill faces similar hurdles. While SMUD has expressed interest in the solar project, it has raised concerns about the project’s impact on rates.

If Conergy is unable to get a deal to sell grid-tied solar electrical generated power to SMUD, the solar provider needs to reach a deal that allows it to use SMUD’s transmission lines to export the energy elsewhere in the state at competitive rates, said Dean Peckham, senior project manager with the city Department of Economic Development.

State Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, believes SMUD should consider the region’s economic development needs. “It might make some sense to have some higher costs in the short run in order enjoy the long-term benefit of increased employment and economic activity in the region,” he said.

But Brinton said the company’s foremost focus is to provide affordable and reliable service to its customers. Solar and wind power is generally more expensive than power derived from conventional sources, and that added renewable energy projects would mean higher rates.

“Our number one charge is to provide reliable and affordable electricity,” Brinton said. Brinton noted that several projects that count toward SMUD’s 23 percent solar renewable portfolio are still creating a significant number of jobs in the region.
They include wind projects in Solano County that will add 70 construction jobs and 15 permanent positions.

Sacramento SMUD also also has contracts with several partners to build solar farms in Galt and Elk Grove over the next several years. The solar plants will deliver more than 100 megawatts of power, or enough electricity to power 100,000 homes.

Bob Burris, senior vice president of the Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization (SACTO), said SMUD’s early adoption of solar and wind renewable projects already has benefitted economic development in the local region making a significant contribution to the broken economy. A recent study by Next 10, a San Francisco nonprofit that supports solar green tech, found that the number of green solar and wind jobs in the Sacramento area increased 87 percent from 1995 to 2008, making it the fastest growing region in the state.

“One of the main drivers in the clean-tech sector in Sacramento has been SMUD’s and PG&E’s aggressive pursuit of solar and other renewables,” Burris said.