California exploring ways to achieve green energy

November 26, 2009 7:41:27 PM PST
Most people probably have not thought much about what it takes to get the power to your house when the lights are turned on, but the nation's electrical grid is a complex network of switches and cables that span the nation. As California turns up the power on green energy, getting that power to consumers is presenting some unique problems.

High above the ground, on the border of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, PG&E crews routinely fly helicopters within inches of high-voltage power lines to keep them clean.

"It does take a lot of resources. We are devoting almost half of our capital budgets for just replacing and maintain and taking care of the equipment that we have," says Kevin Dasso with PG&E.

Without this kind of maintenance, the lines would eventually fail, shutting off the power to millions of people. The work highlights just how delicate the power grid is as the state prepares to demand more from it. By 2010, California wants 20 percent of its power to come from renewable sources.

"The clock has started and the state has some pretty stringent goals to get back to our 1990 levels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions," says State Energy Commissioner Jeff Byron.

The electric grid is a network of high-voltage cables that span the nation. It is 40-years-old and very fragile in places. A 2005 study conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that power interruptions and blackouts cost the economy $80 billion every year.

Byron says, "Technically, we're going to have to transform the way we operate the grid."

He says California has to make significant changes to the current system that delivers electricity in order to meet its goals.

"We're going to have to think differently about generation and renewables present some challenges," he says.

The renewables industry is watching California closely to see if it can do it. Rob Gramlich is with the American Wind Energy Association.

"We really need to change the way we regulate transmission in the country," he says. "Our system is really set up for an old system that doesn't apply to our new challenges."

His industry is fighting bureaucracy and environmentalists as they try to figure out just how to get power from new sources to people's homes.

"The resource potential is vast. We could power this country many times over, and others, with our wind and solar resources if we had the transmission grid," says Gramlich.

Much of that renewable power will need to be built in the areas most suitable for energy production. Wind energy will come from areas with the strongest breezes, solar, from the most sunny. Those sites, however, are not necessarily near existing power lines.

Grant Rosenblum with California ISO says, "It's going to be a whole new way of thinking about energy and energy delivery."

The California Independent System Operator, or Cal ISO, says the current system is already not going to meet the 2010 goal of 20 percent until 2012. That is raising questions about the state's ability to meet a bigger mandate that 33 percent of our power must come from renewable by 2020.

"We're doing many, many studies to try and predict what are our actual needs, in response to the variability that we are going to anticipate," Rosenblum says.

Those studies will explore two major concerns: How to get power to customers from remote areas and how to integrate them into the existing system. It also means added costs to utilities like PG&E who is already spending millions maintaining the aging infrastructure. One possible solution is called a "smart grid."

"It's almost like the equivalent of the Internet in terms of how it changes, how it could change, the way the utility business operates," Dasso says.

Using special meters embedded with sensors and computers, consumers and utilities can control power distribution wirelessly.

"We're leading the nation in the deployment of smart meters," says Dasso.

During periods of high electrical demand, electricity can be diverted from people's appliances to their air conditioner. PG&E has already installed almost 4 million meters in Northern California and plans to install 10 million by 2012.

"Smart grid" technology got a boost earlier this year when President Obama included 11 billion in the stimulus package for research and development. It also has the support of the Secretary of Energy Steve Chu, a green energy advocate. It is a combination that state energy officials say is putting California on the path to a greener transmission grid.

Byron says, "The proper leadership is in place at both the federal and state level to move towards renewables in a significant way."

But, will it be done in time to meet the state's 2020 goals?

"It has to be," Rosenblum says. "I think that's all that can be said. It has to be."

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


Load Comments