Southern California environment news and trends

You takes your chances: betting rules for the energy racetrack

136th Running of the Preakness Stakes

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Some of these horses are solar technologies, and some of them we have bet on, in my metaphorical world.

Like some of my other public radio colleagues here in LA, I'm a fan of former local TV guy John Schwada, and so I've been glad to see his writing over at LA Observed. But the other day, he looked at the amount of loan guarantees the Department of Energy made in California, through the prism of political rhetoric and a Brookings report, and seems to have concluded that the program's too risky for the public. "It all adds up to a huge taxpayer bet on the ability of a handful of companies to turn California's sunlight into green energy. That could be a big windfall for the state's environment but - as the numbers point out - the long-term outlook is that these green power projects will create only a handful of permanent jobs."

There's another way of looking at the DOE loan program in specific and renewable energy and jobs in general. In conversation with Matt Debord, who has spent a couple weeks figuring out Solyndra and loan guarantees, I've lately been thinking about loan guarantees as bets. The federal government, like venture capital companies, has been betting on emerging technology. I have a friend who writes for the Daily Racing Form, and I enjoy a day at Santa Anita (or the Fairgrounds Racetrack in New Orleans, or Keeneland) as much as anyone, so in that spirit, here's four things to remember at the track when you're watching this metaphorical horse race that everyone's desperate to handicap.  

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Will Solar City's SolarStrong be Solyndra's casualty?

In these pages, in Debord Report, and elsewhere, the Solyndra bankruptcy and investigation have ran debate rampant over the question of what this whole fiasco does to other California companies. We have at least one answer, and it's not pretty. 

A few weeks back San Mateo-based SolarCity announced it got a $275 million loan guarantee for SolarStrong, a project to install residential rooftop solar at up to 124 military bases in 33 states. SolarCity says this project "has the potential to be the largest single residential solar electricity project in the world and would nearly double" the total number of residential solar installations in the US. 

Today it doesn't look like that loan's coming through. 

SolarCity says the Department of Energy has now told them that it won't be able to finalize approval for the loan guarantee before the program ends on September 30 "due to the increased documentation requirements that are the result of the current congressional investigation into the Solyndra bankruptcy."

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From the LADWP board meeting, an update on once-through cooling

LADWP's Scattergood Power Plant.

Well, 2029 is the year.  

Earlier I wondered whether the DWP was planning to look for more time to end its practice of once-through cooling, using sea water to cool equipment at coastal power plants. The utility's already gotten 9 years past the initial end date for the practice, after a hearing in July at the state water resources control board. I wondered whether DWP was going to use the next meeting of the water board's independent experts on energy and infrastructure, SACCWIS, to push for more time. It seems I misunderstood. 

LADWP chief Ron Nichols says clearly that the DWP is doing 2029 - period. "That is our plan, that is our schedule, and that's what we're moving forward on is that."

You can listen to the discussion of the entire agenda item here. Nichols makes his statement about 3 minutes in, in response to a specific question. 

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California studies how to convert road vibrations from cars to usable energy

Did you know that it is possible to convert road vibrations into electric energy? And better yet, we might soon be using this technology throughout the state? Meet AB 306, a measure requiring California to study the use of piezoelectric transducers, a new technology than can convert road vibrations from cars and trucks into usable electrical energy. Soon AB 306 may be coming to a road near you.

Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) of the 43rd District sponsored the measure. As Gatto explains, “The power can be stored and used to power lights, signs, call boxes, electric vehicles, and perhaps even homes within a few miles of the freeway.” Recently, Gatto’s bill passed the California State Legislature by a bipartisan vote of 46-17. It’s gone to Governor Jerry Brown for review.

So just how does the science behind California AB 306 work? Energy is created through a process requiring the use of piezoelectric transducers placed under roadways. These transmitters convert the road vibrations into energy. (You can read more about its exact science here.) It’s already used in Japan, where the East Japan Railway Company converts the vibrations from people walking on its platforms to power its signs. Israel and Italy use or plan to use the technology. 

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DWP still looking for more time on once-through cooling?

LADWP's supposed to stop an environmentally harmful process called once through cooling at its coastal power plants. This summer the utility even got an extension of time to do it. An item at its commissioners' meeting today reveals DWP may want still more time to comply with new federal rules. In a memo to the board on the DWP's website, the utility describes a schedule six years longer than the law now allows.

Under the Clean Water Act, once through cooling is illegal because the process harms water quality and sea life. It sucks sea water in to cool equipment, then it spits heated water back into the ocean. That outflow kills tiny organisms, the bottom of the food web. A couple dozen California power plants have used sea water this way, including DWP's Scattergood, Haynes, and Harbor facilities. As a municipal utility, DWP has long sought to be treated differently.

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