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  • Portland General Electric

    The nation's first "solar highway" was completed in 2008 outside Portland, Ore. SMUD is planning a similar project, with the first sites along Highway 50 - one between 43rd and 59th streets in east Sacramento, the other at the Mather Field Road exit in Rancho Cordova.

  • Foon Rhee

Regs Run Amok: SMUD's 'solar highways' face many regulatory speed bumps

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Friday, Sep. 30, 2011 - 7:52 pm

Should “green” projects get fast-tracked through regulations designed to protect the environment? To comment on this issue, please use our comments at the end of the story or go our facebook page at

To the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, "solar highways" are a really bright idea.

Like all utilities in California, it's under an edict to ramp up solar and other renewable energy. Putting solar panels along mostly unused roadsides is much better than taking up productive farmland. Placing the arrays close to homes and businesses also reduces the need for expensive transmission lines. The projects could also create some jobs along the way, no small matter when unemployment locally and statewide is stuck above 12 percent.

SMUD's solar highways along Highway 50 – the first in the state and the largest in the nation – are supposed to showcase the potential of solar highways in California.

What they're also demonstrating is that besides economic and technology challenges, one of the biggest barriers is the rigmarole of regulations – layers and layers of local, state and federal permitting and planning that can be as slow as molasses.

On the drawing board since late 2008, SMUD's projects won't start to be built until next spring and won't be completed until late 2012 – if all goes smoothly.

It makes you wonder: How much is the regulatory thicket getting in the way of our clean energy goals and the broader innovation and entrepreneurship we badly need to get California's economy back on track?

That question has the attention of some legislators, including Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, who want to start on regulatory reform before their session ends Sept. 9. Just maybe, it's one area where Democrats and Republicans can find common ground on a pro-business agenda.

One target is the state's laborious environmental review process. Since the California Environmental Quality Act is supposed to make sure that officials consider the impact of projects on our air, land and water, it would be painfully ironic if it unnecessarily slowed down projects that could lower carbon emissions, a threat to the environment.

It's at least worth debating whether green projects like solar highways ought to be fast-tracked through the CEQA process, which typically takes at least a year and as long as two years when it involves Caltrans or other state agencies. Some lawmakers are already thinking in this direction: Senate Bill 226 would grant very limited exemptions to smaller solar arrays on farmland and to some rooftop solar installations.

While adamantly opposed to gutting CEQA, some environmental leaders are also open to leeway for smaller projects, as long as nearby residents are protected.

The California Energy Commission is gung-ho on solar power, including solar highways, and is trying to clear the path for them. Commission Chairman Robert Weisenmiller, while saying it's important to uphold CEQA, says these green projects need to move as "expeditiously" as possible through the process.

They could also have to comply with myriad ordinances and standards that can differ from one city or county to the next. He says that local permitting for solar highways needs to be standardized so that any clearances can be completed with "cookie-cutter" speed.

Caltrans is also enthusiastic about solar highways, while wanting to make sure they don't endanger motorists. It is working with a consultant to pinpoint potential sites across the state. In an April report, the Energy Commission estimated there might be as many as 200 highway intersections on 2,000 acres that could work.

Brown backing solar

Gov. Jerry Brown has set a goal of 12,000 megawatts by 2020 from localized generation – solar highways and other smaller-scale projects that, at least in theory, should not take as long to get up and running. In all, Brown has called for 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy by the end of the decade, the cornerstone of his goal for 500,000 "green" jobs.

The Energy Commission has compiled an initial inventory of state-owned property – land, buildings and highway rights of way – that could be sites for projects producing as much as 2,500 megawatts toward that goal. It's trying to get state agencies on board; so far, five departments, plus the University of California and state Lands Commission, have signed an agreement to at least look at renewable energy projects.

"We want the state to take a leadership role," Weisenmiller says.

While it's unclear how many of these projects will eventually be developed, it is clear that without some streamlining in regulations, it will be a challenge for the state to meet its own deadlines for renewable energy.

The governor recognizes that regulations could be one of the biggest impediments to his green goals. "Like barnacles on a ship, all these rules take on little sub-rules and they metastasize," he told solar industry leaders last month.

Brown pledged to help them cut through the red tape and, word is, he is working on legislation to do just that. "Some kinds of opposition you have to crush," he urged. " … Find the path through the thicket. On the other side, we will have our solar future."

Blazing the trail

SMUD boasts that it's ahead of other utilities moving toward that clean energy future. It has already met the state goal to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and says it is well on track to reach the 33 percent requirement by 2020.

The utility has no beef with the overall goals of AB 32, the 2006 law that aims to reduce greenhouse gases. CEO John DiStasio, however, says he does worry that subsequent specific mandates from the Legislature are too restrictive or could be in conflict. All the different regulations need to be "harmonized," he says.

Utilities need flexibility to use whatever sources of renewable energy make the most sense and are least costly for customers, he says.

Now, solar is only about 1 percent of the renewable electricity produced by SMUD, which has nearly 600,000 customers in the Sacramento region. But, depending on cost and regulatory issues, it is likely to become a bigger source of green energy.

SMUD already has contracts with several partners to build solar farms in Galt and Elk Grove that are supposed to come online next year, and would eventually produce 100 megawatts of power, enough to power 20,000 homes.

Solar highways could be another significant piece. They are more common in Europe but didn't come to the United States until 2008 in suburban Portland.

SMUD's first sites are along Highway 50 – one between 43rd and 59th streets in east Sacramento, the other at the Mather Field Road exit in Rancho Cordova. Combined, the test projects would generate 1.4 megawatts, enough to power 250 homes and to avoid 800 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

The projects got a jump start in January 2010 when SMUD received $1.6 million in federal Energy Department and state Energy Commission grants. The utility has also spent about $500,000 of its own and has received $500,000 from a San Jose solar firm. Last month, the SMUD board adopted the initial environmental impact studies and reports required under CEQA. It also took more than a year to negotiate leases with Caltrans. SMUD is now seeking a private owner-operator, while Caltrans is waiting for the Federal Highway Administration to sign off so it can work with the private firm on permits to use state land.

Caltrans is also involved in an even more complex and ambitious solar highway project that could cost $50 million or more. A private company, Republic Solar Highways, wants to put solar arrays along parts of a 20-mile stretch of Highway 101 in Santa Clara County from Gilroy to San Jose.

These panels would go inside seven cloverleaf interchanges, covering 65 acres and eventually producing up to 15 megawatts, enough to supply 3,000 single-family homes and avoid 15,500 metric tons of carbon emissions a year.

Michael Van Every, president of the San Jose-based firm, says Caltrans has been an "outstanding" partner, willing to streamline its permitting process.

Still, the environmental review process is so complicated that it started in June 2010 and isn't likely to be complete until late this year. If all goes as planned – including making a deal with a utility to buy the power – construction could begin in October 2012 and the projects could go online by January 2013.

Whether led by utilities or private developers, solar highways seem to make all sorts of sense as part of California's leadership on clean energy.

It would be a shame if regulations, however worthy the motives, became a roadblock. This is a chance for the state to show that it's not only serious about dealing with climate change, but determined to improve the business climate as well.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Foon Rhee, Associate editor

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