In reporting a forthcoming radio story on the rush of alternative energy projects in California’s Kern County, I spoke with V. John White, director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.
Q: How’s California doing in its quest to tap renewable resources, ASAP?
A: We’re getting steadily better, I think. We spent a lot of time talking about doing renewables, but the fact is we’re still at roughly 15% renewable statewide.
That’s up a little bit from 12%. But we need to go much greater, to 20%-33% and beyond. That’s going to take significant effort, and I think we’re starting to get there. California had this big boom in the 80's and early 90's and then we stopped. And we learned a lot, but most of that experience went elsewhere and now we’re just getting back into it.
Q: How Does Kern County figure in this picture. I believe the California Energy Commission a few years back projected the county would provide about 40% of the energy needed to meet the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS)—the alternative energy mandates for investor-owned utilities.
A: They [Kern] have some of the best wind resources in the state that have yet to be developed--in the Tehachapi Mountains area. They also have, in parts of the county, very, very good solar resources. They also have proximity of transmission lines that bisect the wind and solar areas. So they have some very important advantages in terms of the resources they were blessed with.
They have some expertise from having built, operated and planned these resources, so they’re also becoming leaders and innovators in the planning of these project.
Q: What’s the county’s environmental record?
A: [County planners have] looked at where impacts might occur and added some requirements for the developers to protect species--it's a sign of some leadership. Also, in the solar area they have given a lot of thought to the best places.
Q: Are California's strict environmental laws slowing the pace of alternative energy development?
A: It’s really a combination of things. In some cases it’s the transmission, interconnections, and in some cases there are federal wildlife reviews the state can’t do anything about. I think on balance CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] provides a means of identifying and reducing impacts from projects. CEQA is a burden for developers compared to other states, but as a result we get better projects with better mitigation and sometimes even less opposition because of the care and the time that is taken.
CEQA is a proxy for a conversation between project applicant and community. I think what you have in Kern County is a moderator for the conversation that can help [energy developments] be successful. By anticipating there are problems that have to be solved, instead of like in Texas trying to approve them as quickly as possible, you avoid adverse consequences and you learn as you go in ways that improve the projects….
Q: Kern County generally prefers to see wind and solar projects developed on private land. Sounds like good strategy economically and environmentally, yes?
A: I think that’s true. One of the problems with private land, however, is a lot of it is divide up into really small parcels. The [projects on] federal lands…it’s important they have an opportunity to get approved if they’re good projects. We have a great amount of economic stimulus money that we’re racing to try to capture by getting projects approved.
The thing about solar is you can still get a lot of energy from the land--with the right acreage--with very high solar radiation. [Public lands in] Kern County are in the Western Mojave, which has some of the best solar resources in the state and the whole country. And if projects are built there they can be smaller than comparable projects because of how good the radiation is. We have to recognize the scale of the energy we have to displace; the [vast] amount of energy we have to have to get off coal, fuel and electrical cars.
I think what’s happening now is the urgency of putting people back to work, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use, have combined to create a sense of urgency that’s causing all the local governments, developers, and environmentalists to raise their game.
American Energy companies are also look across the border for alternative energy. Listen to my story for The World.