Over the past several years thousands of megawatts of renewable energy projects have been approved for construction on both public and private lands in California. The main development areas have been the Mojave Desert and Carrizo Plain areas of the state. But another region of California with great potential – the San Joaquin Valley – is still largely undeveloped, awaiting a commitment from state planners and regulators to prioritize the building of the transmission line needed to make development in this area feasible. The first San Joaquin Valley area project, known as the Westlands Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ), has huge potential to contribute clean energy to meet California’s carbon reduction goals but it has encountered regulatory roadblocks.
NRDC has consistently encouraged California regulators, utilities and investors to consider the benefits of solar development on impaired farmlands in the Westlands CREZ. This is a promising area for developers and renewable energy development because there are thousands of acres of contaminated farmland facing retirement from irrigated agriculture with few environmental conflicts, and floundering local economies that could benefit from the much needed jobs some of these projects would bring to the area. And every utility in the state could purchase power from this region, as could public and private utilities elsewhere in the West. In addition to the above benefits, the solar resource in this area — while not quite as good as the high desert — is excellent for photovoltaic solar power projects. The transmission needed to unlock the area’s potential also helps remove obstacles to fully utilizing the PG&E-owned Helms pumped storage facility for both regulation and load following grid services, something that is crucially important for California’s renewable integration challenge.
Simply put, Helms can store wind energy from the Tehachapi area and use it to fill in behind the interruptions in solar generation created by passing clouds. If that is not enough, still another advantage is that generation in the San Joaquin Valley provides needed geographic diversity to the state’s renewable portfolio assuring that renewable power will be working somewhere in the state even if the wind quiets or the sun is obscured in another. Finally, transmission up the Valley would ease regional congestion and bolster connections between southern and northern California, providing substantial system reliability benefits and regional energy export opportunities.
So what’s the hold-up?
Transmission for renewable energy in California is caught up in a regulatory limbo, in which processing scores of applications for connection to the grid – not all of them viable – have tied transmission planning in knots. When California built transmission to serve specific energy generation zones like Tehachapi or Imperial County, it proved that rational transmission planning can be achieved. But the focus on the interconnection application queue and the process the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) uses to identify commercially viable projects meriting transmission planning has so far disqualified this promising part of the state from renewable energy development.