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USC forum targets renewable energy resources

Weare, Vawter, Benyamin and Rose
From left, panelists Chris Weare, Don Vawter, Aram Benyamin and Adam Rose (Photo/John Roberson)

USC’s Center for Sustainable Cities commemorated Earth Day with a forum to discuss the progress and challenges in meeting California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), key legislation that set an aggressive target of increasing renewable energy resources to 33 percent of total procurement by 2020.

Energy company representatives joined academic researchers on April 25 for two panel discussions on how electric service providers will reach the state’s ambitious requirement.

“We’re excited to host an event that promotes important dialogue and hopefully fosters innovative solutions and approaches to deal with the sustainability issue,” said USC Sol Price School of Public Policy dean Jack H. Knott. “This topic is hugely central to everything that we do.”

Housed within USC Price, the Center for Sustainable Cities seeks to improve the environment, economic vitality and social equity of metropolitan areas through multidisciplinary research, education and community outreach. To date, the center has raised $962,000 in research funds to support projects on greenhouse gas inventories, economic analysis of climate action plans, water scarcity and sustainable communities.

Hilda Blanco, interim director of the center, said the California Energy Commission reported that about 16 percent of the state’s energy came from renewables in 2010.

“California is at the forefront of renewable energy policy in the U.S.,” Blanco said. “The state seems to be on target to meet its first intermediate target of 20 percent renewables by 2013, which is very impressive.”

Southern California Edison (SCE) already has reached that target, reporting 21.1 percent of its portfolio as renewable in 2011. The renewable energy breaks down to 47 percent geothermal, 35 percent wind and 6 percent each for biomass, solar and small hydro.

Don Vawter and Gary Barsley represented SCE at the forum. Vawter explained that the jump from 20 percent to 33 percent renewables isn’t simply a 13-percent increase. In 2011, SCE procured 15.5 billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy. To reach the 2020 requirement, the company projects it will need 28.3 billion kilowatt hours.

“We have to nearly double the amount of renewable energy we procure and distribute,” Vawter said.

SCE already delivers more renewable energy than any other company in the United States. Vawter indicated that competition is driving growth in renewables, with SCE receiving more than 400 project bids in 2011. Solar power dominated the solicitations and seems to be the area where the most growth is possible.

Barsley, manager of solar initiatives at SCE, said that solar pricing has been dropping steadily due to impressive improvements from the large manufacturers.

“As we get into higher and higher levels of renewables, there are lots of unknowns,” Barsley said. “No. 1 for us as utility guys is grid operations. How do we make sure the lights come on every time? There are lots of technical improvements coming to bear that will help with the reliability and predictability. A big one is energy storage. All of our solar resources hit their peaks around noon. Our customers use the most energy between 5 and 7 p.m. If we could store some of this renewable energy for just a few hours, that’s a big deal.”

Cecilia Aguillon, director of marketing and government relations for Kyocera Solar, said the benefits of distributed or localized solar energy are that it produces clean energy, reduces dependence on imported fuels, alleviates grid congestion and creates local high-tech industries. The California Solar Initiative offers cash incentives and rebates for people who install solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on their roofs. The panels connect to the home and then also go to a grid so that the solar energy feeds the house first and then sends excess generation out to the grid.

Blanco discussed the permit challenges for solar PV installations. California’s Solar Rights Act of 1978 voided covenants that prohibited or restricted rooftop solar installation and ensured solar rights for rooftop solar panels. But there are still varying codes, standards and fees across jurisdictions. In addition, in the downtown or in the transit-oriented development areas of large cities, such as Los Angeles, there may be conflicts between property owners of building with different heights, as new redevelopment may shade the rooftop solar panels of an existing building.

To avoid such conflicts, Blanco recommended that cities, such as Los Angeles, that are encouraging both redevelopment and solar projects, should specify solar access areas with different types of protection, depending on the zoning of the area and also set compensation guidelines for addressing solar access impairment by adjacent development, since solar panels are most effective in direct sunlight.

Aram Benyamin, a senior assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said that the LADWP will be completely off coal between 2022 and 2027. In 2010, its portfolio was 39 percent coal, 24 percent natural gas, 20 percent renewables, 10 percent nuclear and 5 percent hydro. He indicated the main challenge is integrating and balancing the changing energy focal points while maintaining the system’s reliability.

“As we go forward with renewables from 20 percent to 33 percent and change the coal to other resources, sometimes it feels like you’re on a plane that’s flying at 40,000 miles, and you’re trying to tinker with the wings and change the engines and do a lot of these modifications as the system is running,” Benyamin said.

Adam Rose, research professor at USC Price, analyzed the impact renewable portfolio standards (RPS) would have on the economy. Although coal mining activities and jobs will decline, his research suggested that new green manufacturing and support industries will more than make up for the losses.

“This has become quite a polarizing issue,” Rose said. “The question is: Are renewable portfolio standards job killers or job creators? We found that an RPS in most states will stimulate modest job growth.”

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