Personalities Plugged In: Picker’s Renewables Pick

By Published On: January 25, 2013

Never take “no” for an answer. That’s the response of Mike Picker, Gov. Jerry Brown’s renewable energy advisor, to alternative energy naysayers. He was Gov. Schwarzenegger’s energy czar too. When Picker landed in the middle of controversy over the state’s renewable energy mandate in 2008, he was repeatedly told a renewable energy standard--first set at 20 percent then expanded to 33 percent--was “totally unattainable.” He was new to the state’s energy business and “naïve” at the time of his appointment, he said at the Power Association of Northern California's Jan. 16 award ceremony. He received the nonprofit energy and utility association's 2012 Award for Achievement. While Picker was a state energy market neophyte five years ago, he was not new to politics. He is a skilled negotiator who has worked in Sacramento--at both the state and community levels--since the early 1980s. Today, investor-owned utilities expect to meet the one-third renewables standard before the law’s 2020 deadline. Additionally, the utilities have signed enough renewable contracts to supply 40 percent of their energy portfolio if all the deals come to fruition. “We are now liberated from: ‘We can’t build anything here’,” the unaffected Picker said of in-state renewables development He noted he’s been involved in the authorization of 150 clean energy projects, representing 16,000 MW and nearly $25 billion in investments. He also oversees the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which is aiming to identify optimal areas for renewable development in a 24 million-acre region. Picker’s known to be a tough negotiator with a strong sense of fairness, according to some who have worked with him. He recently won election to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District Board, his first elected position. “This is service to my community,” he said. “SMUD is pretty well run these days, so I don’t think I’ll mess it up,” he added. Before being appointed by Schwarzenegger and reappointed by Brown, Picker worked with Phil Angelides, state treasurer, as a deputy treasurer in the late 1990s. Earlier, he was former Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna’s chief of staff. He also worked in the first Brown administration, as a deputy assistant in the Department of Toxic Substances Control. Picker expects California to reach an 80 percent renewable goal by 2050. He acknowledged the route for getting there is undetermined. “How are we going to integrate, get the juice flowing and keep carbon emissions out of electric market?” he pondered. A higher renewables portfolio standard, said Picker, may not be the optimal strategy for reaching an 80 percent target in 2050. The state’s renewables portfolio standard legislation was loaded down with controversial requirements and methodologies, which slowed the development process. They include complex methodologies for defining qualifying in-state and imported power, as well as green attributes from out-of-state projects that are detached from the underlying wind, solar, or other non-fossil source of energy. Picker gave kudos to the leadership in Kern County, which has more solar power than any other county in the state. It also has considerable wind energy development. “Eight years ago, the county decided it was no longer an oil and gas county, but an energy one,” according to Picker. The county developed green jobs and marketing programs and worked with the military on renewable projects on its land. Today, there are 1,942 MW of approved solar projects, and about 3,000 MW of projects pending before Kern County planners. Of those, more than 200 MW are on line, according to a Kern County planner. The county also has thousands of MW of wind projects in the pipeline. More than 2,950 MW of wind developments are approved and 905 MW of project applications are pending. Approximately 1,900 MW of wind power is on line. In spite of the successes, Picker doesn’t wear green-tinted glasses. He notes the lack of an effective demand-response market in the state, as well as difficulties associated with developing energy storage and interconnecting renewables to the grid and distribution systems. For instance, the cost of the first group of alternative energy projects is high. In response, he notes that several of the pricier contracts are being renegotiated. The high cost of energy, particularly for large residential consumers, also is driving them to install rooftop solar systems. That can create distribution issues and shift costs to other ratepayers. Picker agreed that energy storage is a key part of a successful renewables mandate. But, development is in limbo because of the lack of a policy on compensating storage developers. In accordance with enacted legislation by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Oakland), the California Public Utilities Commission is in the midst of workshops to attempt to assess whether to set storage mandates for the investor-owned utilities. That determination is to hinge on the cost-effectiveness of existing and emerging storage technologies, which has yet to be decided by regulators. “We know the price will come down,” Picker said of energy storage, particularly with the electrification of the transport industry. Electric vehicles not only are charged by the grid, ideally at night when energy use is down, but can send juice into the grid. He takes issue with the universal installation of so called “smart” meters. So far, they’re not coupled with data management systems or the ability of consumers to access the real time cost of the electricity. Besides regulatory ground rules, energy storage depends on where a market is developed. Currently there is an auxiliary market at the California Independent System Operator but its focus is voltage support. “Should the CAISO be the place for a market?” he asked. The gray-haired governor’s renewable consultant also stressed the importance of the state’s relationship with Nevada. It too is developing renewables, and the center of gambling is an important importer of power. “They would like to get some of our excess night power,” Picker said. He also noted that the development of a western-wide imbalance market--to even out flows of power on the western grid--is “a question that will be before us very soon.” Talk has been growing as renewable energy supplies increase about creating a western market that allows regional entities, such as the state grid operator, to tap into a larger pool of resources to balance supply and demand, which is expected to lower costs.

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