Tag Archives: Sacramento CA

Solar industry heating up in California

Repost from The Sacramento Bee
[Editor: I still burn fossil fuel in my car, but my home and my electric bicycle are powered by the sun.  In Benicia, call or email Dave Hampton of Diablo Solar – Dave and the crew did a great job on my home.  – RS]

Solar industry is heating up again after stumbling during recession

Northern California companies are part of the energy surge
By Mark Glover, 11/08/2014
Birds fly over a solar power array, owned by the Sutter Basin Growers Cooperative, that provides Northern California farmers with a renewable energy source to power key equipment and save on energy costs in Knights Landing.
Birds fly over a solar power array, owned by the Sutter Basin Growers Cooperative, that provides Northern California farmers with a renewable energy source to power key equipment and save on energy costs in Knights Landing. | Paul Kitagaki Jr./Sacramento Bee file

The solar power industry, viewed more than a decade ago as a game-changing, jobs-producing juggernaut in California, took its lumps during the recession.

But now it’s coming back with a vengeance, both here and globally.

Some California solar system installers say they have work backlogs. New deals to build new solar power-generating arrays are being announced regularly. And the nation’s No. 1 solar installer, San Mateo-based SolarCity Corp., recently created ripples industrywide, announcing a loan program that lets homeowners finance and buy their rooftop solar systems. It also announced an offering of what it calls the nation’s first solar bonds.

“Inch by inch and now leap by leap, solar is growing and creeping further into the mainstream … and California is a center point for what we’re seeing now,” said Alfred Abernathy, a Bay Area energy analyst.

That growth is fueled partly by a sunnier economy, falling manufacturing costs, federal tax incentives and increasing consumer and corporate enthusiasm for renewable energy. Solar also has boomed far beyond California’s borders, spreading in China, Japan and Europe.

For perspective, the U.S. Department of Energy shows that the United States currently has about 16 gigawatts of installed solar power, or enough to power more than 3 million average American homes. Through June this year, California accounted for nearly half – 7 gigawatts – of the national total. A gigawatt is a unit of power equal to 1 billion watts.

By contrast, China’s solar power supply is more than 23 gigawatts, and it has set a goal of 35 gigawatts in 2015. Japan surpassed 14 gigawatts early this year and is working toward a goal of doubling that by 2020.

Sacramento’s solar hotspots

The industry’s hot streak has rippled throughout the Sacramento area.

SolarCity, which employs more than 500 locally, plans to move its rapidly growing sales staff into 60,000 square feet of space at 1000 Enterprise Way in Roseville’s Vineyard Pointe Business Park next month.

SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive noted that if his company’s Sacramento-area operations alone were considered a single company, it would be among the largest solar firms in the United States.

Last month, Folsom-based 8minutenergy Renewables LLC received approval to build three solar projects of up to 135 megawatts in Kern County. Collectively called the Redwood Solar Farms, it will be developed on 640 acres of farmland. Construction of the first phase is set to begin in December, with energy production expected to begin in mid-2015.

Roseville’s SPI Solar, which warned in an early 2013 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that there was “substantial doubt as to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern,” has found new life since closely aligning operations with LDK Solar Co., its China-based parent company. In recent weeks, SPI has signed a blizzard of solar development agreements in China (regarded as the world’s No. 1 solar market), Japan and Europe.

David Hochschild, one of five commissioners on the California Energy Commission and an expert in renewable energy, acknowledged that solar energy was once regarded as a relatively exotic technology that was outside the mainstream for most consumers. But that perception is changing, and he envisions solar’s growth path similar to what the mobile phone industry experienced nearly a generation ago.

“I think the future is very bright, and I think that we will eventually reach the point where solar panels are as ubiquitous as cellphones,” he said.

Driving the growth

A combination of factors is propelling solar forward in California.

For one, an improving economy has helped. Sales and installations of residential and commercial solar systems nosedived during the housing meltdown but are on the upswing now.

Mark Frederick, president and CEO of CitiGreen Solar in Auburn, says his company is backlogged with orders from commercial clients. “My experience with businesses is that they are willing to invest (in solar) when they have had three good years in a row, and we have been seeing that.”

Hochschild cites another major factor: “In the past, the barrier has been cost, but it’s no longer a barrier.”

Improved methods of solar panel production have dramatically reduced manufacturing expenses, said Hochschild. In 1980, solar panels cost around $35 per watt to produce, he said. That fell to around $5 a watt in 2000 and currently stands at around 70 cents a watt.

Low cost was not always considered a plus in the solar industry. China’s overproduction of solar panels was cited by some energy experts as one of the factors producing a soft market in 2012. But the international playing field has shifted.

Subsidization of solar projects in China and Japan helped turbocharge the industry in those nations, to the point where Hochschild says the United States is the world’s No. 3 solar market, behind China and Japan, respectively. In China’s case, it went from being a relatively small builder of solar installations to a major builder in just several years.

That has benefited Roseville’s SPI Solar, which is now finding substantial work overseas due to its relationship with Chinese parent LDK. Xiaofeng Peng, SPI’s chairman, says SPI is now “one of the largest photovoltaic development companies in (China’s) market.”

Hochschild said California’s solar market also has benefited from Gov. Jerry Brown’s push for a third of California’s energy supply to come from renewable sources by 2020. Also helping the solar industry are federal tax credits of 30 percent for homeowners and businesses that install solar panels by Dec. 31, 2016.

Tax credits also played a role in SolarCity’s recently announced solar financing plan, which analyst Abernathy called a “game-changer.” “On one level, it’s a variation of the old-fashioned car loan.” Under the company’s MyPower plan, consumers take out a 30-year loan to purchase their rooftop solar system, rather than leasing it, which is the norm. The benefit of buying the system is that the homeowner gets the 30 percent federal tax credit, instead of the solar company.

Some red flags

For all of solar’s promise, energy analysts warn that the industry’s history is laced with periods of boom and bust, dating back to the 1954 invention of the world’s first practical solar cell by scientists at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.

Already, there are some red flags.

In Japan, where subsidies and a favorable tariff policy created a solar boom following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, energy analysts are now citing a glut of renewable-energy businesses and applications for solar facilities. Some fear that the industry could collapse under its own weight. Japan solar investors who were betting on relatively high renewable-energy rates over the long term are now voicing concerns.

In Europe, Germany was the embodiment of solar power expansion from 2010-12, installing a whopping 22.5 gigawatts of capacity. However, solar power installations have declined for two years, accompanied by significant job losses in the industry. Renewable-energy advocates have blamed the German government for enacting policies that restricted tariff benefits and put unreasonable restrictions on utility-scale installations.

SolarCity’s Rive dismissed concerns about the solar industry and its past history, stating that the recessionary dip in California occurred in manufacturing, not in the growth of solar companies.

As further evidence of the increasingly mainstream interest in solar technologies, a handful of major U.S. companies are now offering their workers substantial discounts on solar installations for their homes, making it another employee benefit like health care. The discounts will be available to 100,000 employees of four companies – Cisco Systems, 3M, Kimberly-Clark and National Geographic – part of a program announced last month by the World Wildlife Fund.

To insiders like Rive, that’s yet another sign of the solar industry’s momentum: “Now, more people are educated on it. More people are getting it.”

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    Vallejo Times-Herald: Why the rush on crude?

    Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald, Letters

    Why the rush on crude?

    By Kathy Kerridge, Vallejo Times-Herald, 07/08/2014

    The Benicia Planning commission will take public comments tonight at City Hall on the Draft Environmental Impact Report for Valero’s Crude by Rail project. Written comments are due by Aug. 1. This project would bring 100 rail cars a day over the Donner Pass or through the Feather River Canyon, over rivers, through Truckee, Roseville, Sacramento, Davis, Dixon, Fairfield, the Suisun Marsh and into Benicia.

    These trains could be carrying the same Bakken Crude that exploded in Canada, killing 47 people and Canadian Tar Sands, which have proved impossible to clean up when it has spilled in waterways. Some have claimed this is safe. Everyone should be aware that the National Transportation Safety Board in January said that trains carrying crude oil should “where technically feasible require rerouting to avoid transportation of such hazardous materials through populated and other sensitive areas.” At this point in time it is feasible to keep these dangerous materials from going through populated areas by not approving the project. Otherwise it will not be feasible.

    The new railcars that Valero says it will use are the same ones that ruptured and spilled April 30, 2014 in Lynchburg, Virginia, threatening Richmond’s water supply. The Department of Transportation is in the process of crafting new rules for rail cars carrying crude, but there is no time line for when they will be issued and it will be some time before any new cars are available. There have been two train derailments in Benicia’s Industrial Park in recent months.

    Why the rush? Is Valero running out of crude oil? No. The reason Valero wants to bring in this dangerous crude, in rail cars that split and rupture in a derailment, is that this crude oil is on sale right now. The oil isn’t going anywhere. It isn’t safe to transport through populated areas and all of the communities that this crude goes through will be at risk.

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      New map shows California emergency teams not in best position for oil train response

      Repost from The Sacramento Bee
      [Editor: This interactive OES map, “Rail Risk and Response” is an incredibly detailed resource – as you zoom in, additional features appear.  Hazards shown on the map include geologically unstable areas, proximity to dense population centers, proximity to waterways, schools and hospitals, pipelines, sensitive species or habitat, etc.  The story in the Sacramento Bee does not contain a link to the map.   Here’s the intro page for the interactive map.   And here’s the map itself.  – RS]

      New map shows California emergency teams not in best position for oil train response

      By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Newspapers, Jul. 4, 2014

      A map put together by multiple state agencies in California shows that the location and capability of emergency response teams don’t always align with the biggest risks presented by an expected increase in crude oil shipments by rail in the coming years.

      The map shows that the state’s largest population centers, including Sacramento, the Bay Area and Los Angeles, have the most robust emergency response capabilities.

      But rural stretches of California’s rail network, including locations with a history of derailments, have the least equipped and least trained emergency response teams, according to the map produced by the Interagency Working Group on Oil by Rail Safety.

      The map shows large concentrations of hospitals, schools and neighborhoods around many rail lines through California cities. Additionally, it shows that the state’s rail network frequently intersects with fault lines, rivers and streams and sensitive wildlife habitats.

      California has some of the best-trained and best-equipped emergency response teams in the country, according to some experts, but they’re not always where they’re needed.

      “Proximity matters,” said Kelly Huston, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

      Since Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a shift in state oil spill and prevention resources in his budget in January, members of the California Legislature have held hearings and offered legislation to improve the state’s preparedness.

      “Everyone recognizes this is a critical need throughout the state,” said state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills.

      Starting next year, California will begin imposing a 6.5-cent-a-barrel fee on oil transported to the state by rail to fund oil spill response and prevention efforts. State lawmakers have introduced another bill to levy an additional fee to train and equip firefighters who may be called to respond to a rail incident.

      California officials soon expect the state to receive as much as a quarter of its oil supply by rail, which means more frequent train movements through the state’s highest-risk areas.

      “It makes what we’re doing that much more important,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

      The map was presented last week by the state Environmental Protection Agency at a workshop on crude oil trends at Berkeley City College. It shows a dearth of response capability in locations where derailments have occurred more frequently, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

      These include the Cantara Loop on the upper Sacramento River, the site of a 1991 train derailment that released thousands of gallons of pesticide, killing fish along a 40-mile stretch of the river.

      They also include the Feather River Canyon, which according to documents released last week by OES, is the route of a twice-monthly train of Bakken crude oil. The trains, operated by BNSF, pass through Sacramento on their way to a rail terminal in Richmond.

      “A spill into these sources of water makes it even more problematic,” Pavley said.

      Another vulnerable site: Cuesta Grade, a steep, serpentine stretch of track north of San Luis Obispo. A proposed crude-by-rail terminal at the Phillips 66 refinery in Santa Maria, south of San Luis Obispo, would bring five 80-car oil trains a week over the line, operated by Union Pacific.

      Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said that the railroad had reached out to fire departments across California in the communities where it operates and has offered “comprehensive” hazardous materials training to first responders around the state.

      “We annually train local, state and federal first-responders on protocols to minimize the impact of a derailment in their communities,” he said.

      BNSF, the railroad that hauls more crude oil than any in North America, is offering hazardous materials training for hundreds of firefighters, including some in Sacramento, according to spokeswoman Lena Kent.

      Trains transporting crude oil are not new in California. From 1983 to 1997, Southern Pacific Railroad operated one such train every day between Bakersfield and South Los Angeles over the Tehachapi Pass.

      But that oil was thicker California crude that doesn’t ignite easily, and it was also transported in specially designed tank cars. Much of the crude oil coming into the state today is lighter and more flammable, and it’s loaded into a fleet of tank cars with a long record of failure in derailments.

      “In light of new risks, it’s essential for first responders to have the right training and equipment to prepare for and respond to accidents,” said Curtis Brundage, a hazardous materials specialist with the San Bernardino Fire Department, in a state Senate hearing last month.

      The worst accident occurred a year ago, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. An unmanned Bakken crude oil train broke loose and derailed in the center of town. Massive fires and explosions killed 47 people and leveled entire blocks of buildings.

      More derailments followed, though none fatal, as the railroads and the federal government initiated a series of safety improvements. Emergency response officials from all over the country have testified in Washington in the past few months that local fire departments lack the resources to confront large fires from trains carrying 3 million gallons of oil.

      In a report last month, OES made a dozen recommendations to improve the safety of California communities, including increased track inspections, stronger tank cars, more funding for emergency response and better notification of hazardous shipments from the railroads.

      Hill gives the railroads credit for taking the issue seriously with stepped-up track inspections, new operating procedures, orders for stronger tank cars and offers to train emergency personnel. But he added that state lawmakers and agencies were right to push for more before a trickle of oil shipments by rail to California turned into a steady stream.

      “We saw what happened elsewhere,” he said. “This is just to make sure California is prepared.”

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        Vallejo Times-Herald: Joint Legislative Oversight Hearing on Transport of California Crude Oil by Rail

        Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
        [Editor: Note near the end of this story, “Patterson, who joined Henke on a four-person panel addressing on-the-ground risks, did not address the merits of Valero’s proposed crude-by-rail project in Benicia.”  Patterson read a prepared statement by her personal attorney affirming her right to offer testimony, and was commended later in the hearing by Senator Wolk.  Mayor Patterson’s testimony can be viewed here – scroll ahead to minute 1:22:20 and 1:43:45.  – RS]

        Benicia Mayor Patterson testifies at hearing about oil-by-rail risks

        Lawmakers looking to address safety concern
        By Tony Burchyns, 06/19/2014

        As state lawmakers look to address the risks from a surge in oil train traffic, Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson joined others Thursday in testifying at a legislative oversight hearing in Sacramento about the need for more actions to prevent and respond to accidents that could threaten public safety.

        In her remarks, Patterson asked whether state and local agencies are prepared to deal with deadly tanker rail accidents like last year’s explosive derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people.

        “If you are in an industrial area or a cultural center or a school the actual first-responders are those people who are affected,” Patterson said. “And that’s (the) ultimate primary concern that I have that we don’t put people at risk and that we don’t have the children or the people going to a concert or workers or residents exposed to that kind of threat.”

        Driven by increased North American oil production, California and the nation are experiencing a surge in oil-by-rail traffic.

        In California, imports grew from only 70 tanker carloads in 2009 to nearly 9,5000 carloads last year, and could increase up to 230,000 carloads – a quarter of all the crude oil refined in the state – in 2016, according to the California Energy Commission.

        About 3.8 million Californians who live along train routes face increased safety risks posed by new unloading facilities planned or under construction, according to a study by the Natural Resource Defense Council.

        Thursday’s hearing provided an opportunity for regulators, community members and first-responders to look at what the risks and needs are in terms of safety and response.

        Issues raised included uncertainty over the timing and comprehensiveness of new federal rail tank car standards and operational rules, a need to more fully assess the risks from increased oil train traffic in California and a lack of timely and complete information about hazardous cargo before it passes through local communities.

        The need for more training and resources for first-responders was also identified.

        “Your immediate concern is the incident that takes place today, tomorrow and next week,” said Kurt Henke, chief of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

        Patterson, who joined Henke on a four-person panel addressing on-the-ground risks, did not address the merits of Valero’s proposed crude-by-rail project in Benicia. If approved, the project would allow Valero to bring in up to 100 tanker carloads of crude per day to its Benicia refinery.

        The project’s draft environmental impact report was released Tuesday.

        The proposed rail route would pass through rural and urban areas, including parts of Sacramento and Davis.

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