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California utilities push for solar, wind and carbon-capture projects

December 3, 2009 |  4:16 pm

California regulators went out of this world today and gave the go-ahead to a power-purchase agreement involving the nation’s first solar power plant in space.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the state’s largest utility, will proceed with a 15-year contract with Manhattan Beach start-up Solaren Corp., after receiving approval from the California Public Utilities Commission.

The project, which is expected to go live in 2016, will use solar cells from Solaren on orbiting satellites to convert energy from the sun into radio-frequency waves. The waves will be transmitted to a receiving station near Fresno and reverted back into electricity.

The project should produce 1,700 gigawatt-hours of energy each year, according to the commission. The Japanese government said this summer that it intends to pursue a similar space-based solar program.

California hopes that utilities will pull 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2010. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a directive in September pushing for a 33% by 2020 goal.

San Francisco-based PG&E was also busy today signing a contract to buy and operate its first wind-energy project.

Portland, Ore.-based Iberdrola Renewables Inc., the U.S. branch of Iberdrola SA in Spain, will develop and build the Manzana Wind Project for PG&E. The project, which will be spread across 7,000 acres in the Tehachapi region of eastern Kern County, will cost slightly more than $900 million, the utility said.

The facility will produce up to 246 megawatts, or 670 gigawatt-hours of electricity a year, enough to power roughly 100,000 average California homes. Manzana could go online as early as December 2011 if the project is approved by the PUC.

To finance the effort, customers could see their rates increase 1.1% in 2012 compared with 2009 rates, or an average increase of 25 cents each month, the utility said.

Iberdrola has 3,500 megawatts from operating projects in the U.S., as well as four facilities under construction, said Jan Johnson, a spokeswoman with the company.

Also today, the California Public Utilities Commission gave approval for Edison International to spend up to $30 million to co-fund a feasibility study of a carbon-capture and storage plant.

Rosemead-based Edison, the parent of the Southern California Edison utility, will commit as much as $17 million to the first phase of the study, which will explore the permitting, engineering and economics of the Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) project.

The project could become a 250-megawatt power station in Kern County that would supply the state with low-carbon, hydrogen-produced electricity. The hydrogen would come from gasifying resources such as petroleum coke from oil refineries, potentially lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

If deemed necessary, Edison could also pour up to $13 million of funding into a second phase of research, according to regulators. So far, the U.S. Department of Energy has spent $308 million supporting the HECA project.

-- Tiffany Hsu