Concentrated Solar & Biomass Gaining Traction

By Published On: June 6, 2008

The California Energy Commission, which provides millions of dollars in grants to renewable projects, expects concentrated solar and biomass power projects to play a more prominent role as the state strives to reach its renewable supply mandate. “It looks like contributions from concentrated solar will be much higher than previously estimated,” Gerry Braun, CEC renewables team leader, said during a June 3 meeting on ratepayer-funded grants for renewable projects. California is well below its renewables portfolio standard, which requires that 20 percent of utility energy supplies come from alternative resources by 2010. Wind, solar, geothermal, and other non-fossil derived power only provide about 11 percent of investor-owned utility supplies combined, according to the CEC. The same day as this week’s CEC workshop, Southern California Edison announced it signed a 254 MW concentrated solar deal with eSolar based in Pasadena. The project, slated for the Lancaster area, is expected to deliver 105 MW beginning in 2011, and reach 245 MW in 2013. The deal involves pre-fabricated modules consisting of solar towers that have thousands of mirrors. The mirrors track the sun and reflect light to a receiver. The concentrated light is used to create heat that boils water and the steam is routed to a traditional turbine to produce electricity. Also predicted to be a significant contributor of renewable energy is biomass. “We want to maximize biomass for electric generation and transportation,” said Val Tiangco, CEC senior technical lead for biomass, echoing views expressed during a biomass conference last week in Sacramento. The governor issued an executive order (S-06-06), which orders that one-fifth of the state’s alternative power come from agricultural, forestry and urban waste. Biomass projects have won the lion’s share of the CEC’s Public Interest Research Program funding, reaping 45 percent, or $30.5 million, since the ratepayer-funded program was launched in 1998. How prominent a role energy generated from usable wastes, as well as feedstocks from crops, play hinges on the definition and parameters of sustainability criteria, which are in flux. Of the total $68.5 million in PIER grants allocated to 108 projects over the last decade, photovoltaics won 13 percent, or $8.7 million, wind projects 10 percent, or $6.7 million, geothermal at 6 percent of the funds, or $4.4 million, and concentrated solar projects 3 percent, or $1.8 million. Projects focused on renewables integration and collaboration received 22 percent, or $15.3 million over the last ten years. To try and meet the challenging 20 percent goal in less than two years, Braun said his agency “is looking at a vision that recognizes that renewables will be deployed in a more diverse and integrated way.” That includes giving more weight to local projects that don’t need new or upgraded transmission lines, as well as resources that displace natural gas. However, a key challenge in local renewable projects is the lack of an energy planning model at the community level, Braun noted. An updated Integrated Energy Policy Report, a joint energy agency document that is supposed to guide the state’s energy policy, also will emphasize the need for increased levels of renewables as well as requisite accompanying transmission lines.

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