Calif. Leads In Clean Energy, But Challenges Loom Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hopes his state will generate a third of its electricity from renewable power by 2020. It's an ambitious goal that will take an unprecedented effort. But economic and bureaucratic challenges could hamper the efforts of clean energy developers.
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Calif. Leads In Clean Energy, But Challenges Loom

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Calif. Leads In Clean Energy, But Challenges Loom

Calif. Leads In Clean Energy, But Challenges Loom

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

California wants to become a leader in renewable energy. The state is committed to some ambitious goals for wind and solar power. Maybe too ambitious. All this week, we'll be following this story in collaboration with our member station KQED. Reporter Lauren Sommer is on the line from San Francisco.

Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN SOMMER: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So just how ambitious is California being?

SOMMER: Well, pretty ambitious. California has one of the most aggressive goals in the country. Now, there's certainly other states that are at the top of the list for renewable power, too. You have Texas, with a lot of wind power. Washington State has a lot of hydropower.

But when it comes to adopting some of the newer technologies, and when it comes to just the sheer volume of renewable energy that California's going to need to hit this goal, the state is really leading the way.

INSKEEP: Well, when you say need to hit the goal, what is the goal?

SOMMER: Well, the longer-term goal is for the utilities to get a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, he's also set a shorter term goal. That's for 20 percent renewable power by the end of this year.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking about that. You've got a state that has an economy the size of a good sized country. Is it really possible for them to have a third of their energy from renewable sources in about a decade?

SOMMER: They're certainly going to try. In terms of this year's goal, though, the state's not quite going to make it. Right now, I think they're going to hit about 18 or 19 percent by the end of this. So to hit the longer term goal, a lot of people have their doubts.

The governor doesn't seem fazed, though. He's just as confident as he was when he announced it in 2008.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): California is a world leader in protecting the environment and in fighting global warming, and we have done an extraordinary job not only for California but also inspiring other states and other nations to do exactly the same.

SOMMER: Of course, California has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to renewable power. In fact, one of the first large-scale wind farms in the country was built just outside the Bay area at the Altamont Pass.

Mr. LARRY BARR (Altamont Pass): You'd meet somebody that asked you what you do for a living...

SOMMER: That's Larry Barr, who installed the first wind turbine here.

Mr. BARR: And you say, well, I run a wind plant. What? And you'd explain the whole thing to them and it all just sort of, really, you know.

SOMMER: It's a different story today, though. Renewable energy is booming in the state. This year, California regulators are reviewing twice as many renewable power contracts as last year. And more and more of those projects are coming online, like this 16 acre solar farm outside of Sacramento a few weeks ago.

GROUP: One, two, three.

(Soundbite of applause)

SOMMER: But the governor has set the bar high with his 33 percent goal. According to the California Public Utilities Commission, it will require an unprecedented effort at least a doubling of transmission lines and a doubling of renewable energy, thanks to our growing energy appetite.

Mr. TOM BOTTORFF (Senior vice president, PG&E Corporation): I think a lot of people have doubts about whether or not the utilities can do it.

SOMMER: Tom Bottorff is a senior vice president at PG&E, one of the utilities responsible for getting all that renewable power on the grid.

Mr. BOTTORFF: I'm in the camp that believes that it is feasible and doable, and we're working very hard to make sure that happens.

SOMMER: He says the company has signed more than 100 contracts with solar, wind and geothermal developers.

Mr. BOTTORFF: But we're concerned whether all those projects that we've contracted with, will actually come online. It's been a tough economy.

SOMMER: In most cases, it's up to developers to find the financing to build solar and wind farms, which has been hard to come by since the economic downturn. They've had some help, recently, from the federal stimulus funding.

Mr. BOTTORFF: That's been critical, and we're very thankful that those opportunities are available.

SOMMER: Bottorff says the other challenge is California's complex permitting process. Since many solar and wind projects cover hundreds of acres in environmentally sensitive areas, developers must navigate local, state and federal agencies for permission to build, which can be a tricky process.

Mr. MICHAEL PICKER (Senior adviser for renewable energy, Gov. Schwarzenegger): I would probably describe it as painful and tortuous and highly complicated.

SOMMER: Michael Picker is the governor's senior adviser for renewable energy facilities.

Mr. PICKER: The reality is, is each one of the projects that we permit this year will immediately become the largest in the world.

SOMMER: Steve Picker is talking about some of the huge solar farms that are really pushing the envelope here in California. They've run into the most trouble, and that's a problem if California's going to hit its 33 percent goal.

INSKEEP: Lauren Sommer is telling us, this week, about renewable energy in California.

And where are you going to take us tomorrow?

SOMMER: Tomorrow, we're going to visit one of those huge solar farms, which like many other projects are running into a lot of trouble.

INSKEEP: Thanks, Lauren.

SOMMER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Lauren Sommer of member station KQED.

And you can find out your state's plans compare against the rest of the nation at npr.org/science.

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