California's green power movement flexes muscles

California's standing as the nation's clean energy leader received more than a boost of federal cash this week.

Programs by Intel Corp. and San Francisco to purchase energy from renewable sources won national recognition by federal regulators while $300 million in federal funding went to improve and green up aging water and wastewater infrastructure and fund energy efficiency improvements. Cities with projects include Fresno, Merced, Atwater and Tehachapi in the San Joaquin Valley.

The cash will "create jobs now when we need them the most,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement.

Recognition also may serve to bolster the fast and furious growth of the state's clean energy movement. Santa Clara-based chip maker Intel and the green-thinking City by the Bay were among 18 big electricity consumers to get kudos from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership program. Both were recognized at the Renewable Energy Markets Conference this week in Portland, Ore. Other honorees include a New Haven, Conn. printer, global financial services provider BNY Mellon, Kohl’s Department Stores, Motorola and Whole Foods Market.

“We applaud the leadership shown by San Francisco and Intel by ditching polluting power sources and switching to green power,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, in a statement. “Their responsible energy should be a model for all cities and corporations in the fight to solve climate change.”

San Francisco nabbed an EPA Leadership Award for generating its own green power -- more than 25 million kilowatt-hours from solar and biogas. This augments 1.7 billion kilowatt hours of energy the city generates each year through its Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System.

“San Francisco’s commitment to clean energy is producing green jobs and real benefits for our city today,” said Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Newsom called economic advantages of a green economy "very tangible."

Each week appears to bring another announcement of something big in the state -- not to mention elsewhere in the country. In fact, Monday, on the heels of a University of California Merced report that says clean energy could produce 100,000 jobs in the San Joaquin Valley, came the Southern California Edison announcement that a solar power plant being built near Porterville will create about 125 construction jobs.

The solar array of 29,400 panels is being built on 32 acres of city land next to the Porterville airport. It will generate enough electricity to power 4,000 houses in the area.

This trend could continue. Imagine an increasing number of homes and businesses with solar panels all contributing to a smart electrical grid, generating more power than regional plants. Coupled with fewer fossil-fuel needs, the air could clear.

Innovation is moving forward. Algae may provide fuels and electricity, solar generation could move to any surface imaginable and scientists may still find a way to tap into celestial energy. Of course, pigs could fly. But I prefer the optimistic approach. Offshore wind, for instance, was once a far-fetched idea that's now taking hold off Nantucket and in Lake Erie, not to mention many other locations.

Even oil companies are switching their stance, evolving into energy companies with investments that back up the subtle name/image change.

Whether that translates to tangible jobs remains to be seen.

Newsom is sold on the concept. "We can feel the effects of clean energy in the air we breath; with each solar panel, day-by-day, we’re fueling San Francisco’s transformation into a green economy powered by increasingly clean, renewable energy,” he said.

EPA's profile of Intel provides a clue to corporate America's role. It is one of only 10 organizations in the country to receive the agency's Leadership Award for green power purchases. Intel purchases more than 1.4 billion kilowatt-hours of green power annually, more than 50 percent of its electricity consumption.

Said Marty Sedler, Intel's director of global utilities and infrastructure: “It’s good for our shareholders, customers, employees and the environment.”

A recent report by San Francisco-based Clean Edge Inc. listed California just ahead of Massachusetts in a study listing the top clean energy states. It listed innovation in multiple sectors as a key to developing a green economy. And in another report, the group showed that money invested in clean energy is a good call, creating "two to four jobs for every one job created if the money were spent on fossil fuel industries."

Pushing forward, renewables face gray areas. The future isn't straightforward. A report last year by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory exploring supply and demand for green energy said it's a mixed bag with some oversaturation. "If trends hold, renewable energy deficits are projected for New England, New York, and the Mid-Atlantic areas, with notable surpluses in the Midwest, the Heartland, Texas, and the West," it says.

That just means more need to adopt the concept that green energy is a good thing. Heck, energy independence could be an offshoot. You never know.