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Governor Moonbeam has big plans for California sun

To match Feature CALIFORNIA-SOLAR/
To match Feature CALIFORNIA-SOLAR/

By Peter Henderson

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California plans to get a third of its electricity from wind, solar and other renewable energy, but Governor "Moonbeam" Jerry Brown wants more. Soon.

The feisty 73-year-old who brings a former seminarian's zeal to environmentalism sees green jobs reinvigorating the economy and restoring California's position as world leader in clean energy.

Never mind budget gaps, technology gaps or the political gap that will come as the state legislature's champion of alternative energy is termed out of office.

"I didn't get my name Governor Moonbeam for nothing! I earned it, by advocating ideas that were not popular," said Brown, who earned the nickname Governor "Moonbeam" three decades ago when he wanted California to buy a satellite.

Returning to the top state office this year, Brown already has signed a law requiring that the state get a third of its electricity from solar, wind and the like by 2020. He called it just a start. That's the top goal in the United States in terms of raw power, although by 2030 tiny Hawaii is shooting for 40 percent, a number that resonates with Brown.

"I think 40 percent, at reasonable cost, is well within our grasp in the near future," he said in a statement on the 33 percent goal, called the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).

His administration is studying how realistic the higher target would be, as well as a parallel, overlapping effort to plaster the state with small arrays of solar panels that could sit anywhere from prison land to the sides of the California aqueduct. Together these small arrays would account for nearly 20 percent of electricity, if Brown's goals are met.

By contrast, the U.S. Congress has yet to consider a national clean energy standard favored by President Barack Obama. The Republican-led House of Representatives has opposed most of Obama's environmental pushes as job killers, leaving California, the 8th largest economy in the world, in the U.S. vanguard.

Jobs are an important part of the push in a state seeking its next big economic ticket, like microchips or aerospace were in the past. Brown believes California could create half a million jobs by aggressively pursuing alternative energy, energy storage and energy efficiency.

Tom Werner, chief executive of solar panel maker SunPower Corp, has met with Brown more than once this year and says solar energy dominates meetings with the governor even when the topic is not supposed to be solar.

"He reminded me that he was a solar advocate in the 70s, he was the original advocate and he suggested that the RPS would probably go up," Werner said.

WATCHING FOR CLOUDS

Getting to 40 percent renewables would test California's electric grid, strain its ability to put new generation on line fast and exacerbate the problem of intermittent sources.

New power lines and big solar and wind farms are being planned and built -- and environmentalists are challenging many as threats to the state, which has dozens more endangered species than neighbors. It also has deserts, mountain passes, and geothermal fields perfect for renewables.

The state power grid operator has a new command center built with 33 percent renewables in mind. It monitors clouds heading toward the Mojave Desert, for instance.

"That's what it's all about -- keeping visually one step ahead of nature," said Stephanie McCorkle, spokeswoman for the California Independent System Operator.

Figuring out a problem ahead of time is only half the solution, though. The state will still need to fill power gaps that crop up.

Battery technology is improving to the point where power storage could provide a few seconds, minutes -- potentially a few hours of power at prices as competitive with a new natural gas plant, said John Zahurancik, vice president of merchant power company AES Corp's Energy Storage group.

His company is bidding on a New York contract to provide a battery array that would provide as much energy as a mid-size traditional power plant for several hours.

Much of the answer may be to use less electricity, Brown's mantra when he was governor from 1975-1983. Insulating homes, improving lighting and appliances -- these are the types of fixes which could create jobs, reduce grid strain and save consumers money. If energy prices go up, using less electricity could keep bills manageable.

"I think the state can go to 40 percent renewables by 2020, because it's a function of reducing your demand through energy efficiency and increasing your supply of renewables. But we have to be conscious of the price," California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey told legislators at a hearing earlier this year in Sacramento.

In a budget document his commission asked for new staff to study a 40 percent renewables goal to would make renewable energy California's primary energy source. Forty percent would be approximately on par with electricity from natural gas.

Conserving energy could mean using less and shifting energy use -- buying a more efficient dishwasher or using a system to turn off the fridge for a few minutes when demand spikes or run it in the dead of night. But that is years away from having a major impact on the grid.

Industry is circumspect. Although prices of solar arrays are falling, the dependability of new technologies is still unclear, at least as far as making them the main power source. Industry is focusing on just getting to 33 for now.

"We are taking a very large portfolio and we are doubling it in a very short time frame," said Mike Marelli, Director of Contracts for the Renewable and Alternative Power group at Southern California Edison.

Independent operators collectively provided 18 percent of electricity from renewables in California last year -- and thus have missed the previous state target of 20 percent by 2010.

Moreover, the state legislature's top champion of renewable standards, Senator Joe Simitian, will be pushed out of office by term limits next year. He sees alternative energy advocates happy but tired after a multi-year battle on 33 percent.

"I think folks probably are going to want a little break before they are willing to say, what's the next mountain to climb in terms of renewable energy," he said.

(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom and Point Carbon reporter Rory Carroll; Editing by Mary Milliken and Anthony Boadle)

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