September 10, 2013

California Energy Bill Encourages Regulators to Consider Geothermal Power

Newly amended legislation urges California power regulators to encourage the use of geothermal power to help meet the state’s renewable energy targets, with a long-term goal of generating money to repair the Salton Sea.

The ailing desert lake, which straddles Riverside and Imperial counties, has steadily shrunk and will lose its largest remaining supply of water in four years. Yet virtually nothing has happened on the $8.9 billion restoration plan unveiled in 2007 to solve the sea’s environmental problems.

While the sea lacks for water and billions of dollars from the state, experts say the area around the sea has major geothermal energy potential. Geothermal plants in the Imperial Irrigation District produce about 600 megawatts, enough power for about 134,000 homes, and there are another estimated 2,000 megawatts untapped.

Supporters of the new measure say it would help the state reach its 2020 renewable energy threshold, as well as higher targets that have been proposed for subsequent years. In addition, they say, more geothermal sources would help make up for the loss of power from the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

“I don’t think geothermal has been elevated to the degree that it should,” said Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, D-Coachella, whose district includes the sea and who is a co-author of the newly amended bill, Senate Bill 760. “That’s all we’re asking for, just to create a more equal playing field at the (California Public Utilities Commission.)”

A commission spokesman was unavailable to comment about the measure Tuesday, Sept. 3.

The Salton Sea already is too salty for many fish and will shrink significantly after 2017 when a state-approved transfer shifts water intended for Imperial Valley farmers to San Diego. The state Department of Water Resources has warned that restoration measures need to be in place by then.

It’s unknown how much money a larger Salton Sea-area geothermal industry could produce for those efforts. That would be figured out later, officials said.

“These are very large numbers,” Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, whose district covers the sea’s northern half, said of the cost of restoring the sea. “But geothermal has a huge potential for being part of the solution at the Salton Sea.”

The legislation emerged late Friday, less than two weeks before the end of the legislative session and was referred Monday to the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee. A hearing date has not been set.

V. John White, the executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, the group leading support for the bill, said geothermal backers have a strong case to make.

California law requires 33 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by the end of 2020. Solar and wind power dominate the current mix of renewables. Such sources have been less expensive to develop and there also is a lack of transmission capacity in the state’s geothermal-rich southeastern corner.

Solar power is highest during the day and begins to taper off just as people return home from work and turn on their appliances. Wind power can fluctuate. In both cases, fossil fuels have to make up the difference between renewable supply and demand.

Geothermal power, supporters say, never fluctuates and could reduce the need for new natural gas-powered plants.

“It’s not as a set-aside, not a mandate,” White said of the bill. “Our view is we need to balance the portfolio with geothermal and this bill is a way to start the conversation at the PUC.”

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