Southern California environment news and trends

The road to understanding the LADWP's feed-in tariff plans

Mercer 13835

David McNew/Getty Images

The LADWP proposes a "feed-in tariff" policy to put more solar on rooftops.

Today’s talk in the LA City Council’s Energy and Environment committee underlined the absence of a ratepayer advocate in Department of Water and Power territory.

The council committee was discussing the idea of a “feed-in tariff.” (Terrible name.) It's a policy mechanism that lets people who own rooftop solar installations of a certain size to sell back energy those panels generate to the Department of Water and Power. It’s different from “net metering,” what we have with solar-topped homes right now, whose meters spin forward and back depending on use and generation. Renewable energy advocates and champions of solar power argue a feed-in tariff could help the U.S. get to grid parity faster: that’s a state where renewables are no more costly than their old-school counterparts.

Pushed in part by California's greenhouse gas reduction and renewable energy mandates, the DWP has begun to seek permission to enter into a sort of contract, a sort of "Standard Offer Power Purchase Agreement," with owners of solar projects that qualify for the feed in tariff policy. Last week, DWP board members heard about the pilot project to make this happen with a publicly-available PowerPoint presentation that’s still available on the DWP’s feed-in tariff website.

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SolarStrong is a go, without DOE loan guarantee; did Solyndra matter?

Courtesy SolarCity

In September, SolarCity feared its SolarStrong project could wilt on the vine thanks to Solyndra. Now with Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, SolarCity is moving forward with a project almost as big as if it had won an Energy Department loan guarantee. So how important are those things?

Back in September, one of the echo-effects we talked about with regard to the Solyndra/DOE fiasco concerned a project called SolarStrong. Run by SolarCity, it was intended to install residential rooftop solar at up to 124 military bases in 33 states. SolarCity said, at the time, that 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.

Then the DOE’s loan financing program stalled out under the weight of Congressional scrutiny. So SolarCity wrote to Congress and said the stakes for blowing off its loan guarantee were high:

Halting the project will mean sacrificing more than $1 billion of private investment into economically hard-hit military communities throughout the United States. It would also mean the loss of jobs we believe the project would create, many of which would have gone to veterans and the family members of our active duty military servicemen and women. We believe that the valuable work done to move the SolarStrong project to completion should not be lost because of the Solyndra bankruptcy.

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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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Solyndra won't talk DOE energy loan at House hearing on Wednesday

In Washington tomorrow, an oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on Solyndra and loan guarantees by the Department of Energy. Those loans have been critical to development of a few projects here in California, including others we've covered underway from Solar City and Brightsource Energy.  Department of Energy loans program director Jonathan Silver is slated to appear. So were two members of Solyndra's executive team, Brian Harrison and Bill Stover, who, the committee reasoned, would have some answers about how the company went from doubling its expectations to having few at all.

Except Solyndra won't be there. Solyndra's media contact, David Miller, cited "the timing for the hearing, legal complexities arising from last week's activities and the urgency of the Bankruptcy proceedings" as reasons why Harrison and Stover won't be appearing. "The Company is in direct communication with the committee staff and working with them on a future date" for appearances. "Given that it is in the best interest of all creditors, including the U.S. government, to attempt to gain maximum value for the Solyndra assets, either via sale of the whole company or in parts, including its intellectual property, it is in the best interest of all interested parties for them to remain in California to engage with potential purchasers."

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How baseball explains Solyndra's bankruptcy and Energy's loan guarantees

For renewables boosters at the National Clean Energy Summit, the news yesterday that Bay Area-based Solyndra is going under stretched out the discussion about the value of government loan guarantees and other incentives for another day. Perhaps not in the way the most avid cheerleaders would have desired.

Solyndra's bankruptcy announcement put me in mind of the tortured and extended metaphor Energy Secretary Steven Chu used in Vegas Monday as he extolled the virtues of going big or going home in funding energy innovation. Chu talked about the kinds of projects in which the federal government invested as recently as 5 years ago. "We weren't swinging from the heels enough," Chu said. "We were investing in incremental things - singles - but a home run could really change the whole landscape of energy technology. It's really too early to tell whether we actually have home runs, but we see a number of people rounding second base."

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