California breaks free from from fossil fuels, gradually

California is breaking free of its fossil-fuel addiction.

That's according to Next 10's "2012 California Green Innovation Index." The phrasing was "gradually transitioning."

The report, which looks at the previous year's data, says the Sunshine State surpassed 1,000 megawatts of solar energy capacity, attracted $3.5 billion in cleantech investment in 2011 and accrued 910 green technology patents for a first-in-the-nation performance.

Findings in the 75-page report sound positively radiant, especially in light of news that subsidies like those provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are disappearing, economic and international pressures continue and many renewable energy companies are struggling to survive.

California is unique

But F. Noel Perry, Next 10 founder, offers no apologies. In his prelude, he says, "California’s ability to foster and develop new ideas, markets and technology is unique." He says the purpose of the Index "is to document the impacts of California’s efforts to transition to a low carbon economy in order to understand what works and what doesn’t in driving innovation."

Fair enough.

However, the pace of change has been sluggish and unable to transform much of the economic landscape in what is arguably the best region for solar and biofuel in the state -- the San Joaquin Valley. More than two years ago, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, a nonprofit that employs myself and three others, launched into a program to help cities and counties in the Valley administer highly restrictive and complex stimulus grants.

Striding forward, slowly

The goal of federally funded energy efficiency nearly has been attained but not without huge investment of time and energy. Many dubbed the ARRA grants the most difficult they had encountered. Our partnership with the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District has spent more than half of a combined total of more than $4 million in grants and expects to save about 5.4 million kilowatt hours of energy. At 12.7 cents per kWh, that's a reduction of $685,800 on the region's utility bills.

Acrocc the state, people were put to work. Energy efficient lights, pumps and air conditioning units were installed.

Yet, energy efficiency is but one component of the clean energy push. Granted, it's necessary before installing renewable energy systems like solar. Still, those of us in the Valley haven't seen much of the effects from what we know is a big behind-the-scenes effort to get more solar capacity into the region. Should that break loose, jobs would follow.

Dashboard indicators
The Index says "dashboard indicators" point to growth. It lists declines in total emissions and per capita emissions and a rise in energy productivity as the result of energy efficiency measures. It says venture capital investment in clean technology remains strong despite the global financial crisis and that new value continues to be created.

Most of that investment has gone to Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. The patents look promising. There's an increase in battery technology, hybrid and electric systems technology and solar technology.

New solar in California amounted to more than 300,000 kilowatts capacity in 2011, and employment in the sector is approaching 35,000 for the state. "Despite the Solyndra bankruptcy, California’s solar industry is a hotbed within the state’s renewable energy sector," the report says.

Big deals in the works

Deals highlighted include that between Rabobank and SolarCity. The pair have teamed up to finance more than 30 commercial solar projects in California worth $42.5 million. Warren Buffett also got a mention. In December, he purchased Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County. When completed, the 550-megawatt solar farm will be one of the world's largest, generating enough energy for 160,000 homes.

SolarCity was lauded for three additional projects. The San Mateo company is working with Google in a $280 million partnership to build more residential solar projects across the country. It's working with Wal-Mart to bring solar energy to 75 percent of Wal-Mart’s California locations. And it's got a five-year, $1 billion plan to put rooftop solar on up to 120,000 U.S. military housing units.

Big hurdles remain

Sounds good. But many of us are looking for a serious break in the status quo. While renewables are nearing parity with fossil fuels, they have serious issues to work through. For homeowners, the up-front price remains difficult to stomach, and power-purchase agreements, in which somebody else retains ownership of the system, only shave a few percentage points off the average bill.

On a commercial scale, utilities have to work renewable start-stop energy into the grid by upgrading back-up systems and integrating new energy-regulating technologies. It's not a simple marriage.

Change is coming. Hughson Nut, a leading processor of almonds and nut products, just added solar and energy efficiency measures and says it's great. Expect more to follow.

In the meantime, I'm holding out for that gradual transition becoming a little more obvious.