Tehachapi wind farm

The Winds Of Change Propel Clean Energy

It was in the 1980s when I first became interested in renewable energy. I was just entering my 30s and working in the newsroom of the Palm Springs Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving the desert communities east of Riverside.

Palm Springs is a gateway to the San Gorgonio Pass, one of the windiest spots in California. I covered the attorneys in the county courthouse and the emerging wind industry (the hot air beat), which was taking advantage of the seemingly unrelenting breezes and tax breaks to grow the renewable-energy industry.

I was fascinated by the turbines beginning to pop up on the hilltops. I still get excited when they appear as backdrops in a movie or television show. (Did you see them on the first episode of last season's Amazing Race?) The whap-whap of the turbine blades was an interesting scenic diversion, even though they, in the 1980s, seemed to me like little more than a novelty.

Fast forward more than two decades, and wind energy is serious business. Today, windmills could power 829,000 households - nearly double since 2002- and projections call for wind to provide 5% of the state's electricity by 2013, according to calWEA, a nonprofit in California supported by the wind industry.

Much of that power comes from the Altamont Pass outside Tracy, the area near Palm Springs and the Tehachapi Wind Farm, just off the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, which has been my home for almost 25 years. I live near Fresno, which doesn't have many wind turbines but is I'm-burning-the-hair-off-my-head hot during the summer. Thus, solar energy is gaining a larger profile, as evidenced by dozens of projects proposed between Stockton and the base of the Grapevine.

Agriculture operations are among the expanding users of solar energy in the Valley. Check out the latest from a pistachio processor in Tulare County, who just hooked up to the sun to help run his business. California led the nation in 2009 with almost 2,000 growers and ranchers generating electricity from renewable power, according to this report.

Sure, wind and solar remain bit players in the overall energy arena, but they are clearly gaining stature. I can almost hear the renewables movement picking up speed as large and small businesses take up the mantle of clean energy.

Companies such as Whole Foods, Intel and Kohl's are among the world's largest purchasers of renewable energy, according to this new study. In fact, Intel and Whole Foods buy all of their energy from renewable sources (Whole Foods uses only wind energy).

Clearly, those two companies, and the others on the list, are sending a signal: Going green is good socially and economically. I'm sure they wouldn't be doing it if it didn't generate green to the bottom line as well. Check out this report from a pilot program in Wisconsin.

Big Business and the military, which has declared its dependence on fossil fuel a national security issue, are leading the clean energy (which includes efficiency) charge, and helping fuel some economic growth. This story out of Milwaukee notes that the military's solar program was responsible for a manufacturer adding a second shift.

This all comes despite legislators who want to slash programs. I can't help but think we are on the ground floor of a green revolution.

Google Edges Closer To California's Clean Energy Heartland

Most people know Google as the leading Internet search engine, but the high-tech company is investing heavily in renewable energy in California and other places. Just weeks after announcing a big investment in a Mojave Desert solar farm, Google now has placed a $55 million bet on a wind farm in Tehachapi - just off our southern tip.

The company is teaming up with Citibank to buy a part of the Alta Wind Energy Center, one of the largest wind installations in the world, according to the Los Angeles Times. In a press release, Google says its latest outlay - which ups its total investment in renewable energy to $400 million - could help usher in a new energy future.

Google says its experience with solar energy shows that renewable power makes good business sense. Read more about that here.

Google consumes a ton of power through data centers, and says it wants to develop energy from renewable sources that is cheaper than electricity produced from coal. The Tehachapi project had other attributes as well.

"As part of the new 4,500 MW Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, AWEC uses some of the first transmission lines developed specifically to transport renewable energy from remote, resource-rich areas (like the Mojave) to major population centers."

Google also was drawn to the innovative leverage lease financing structure. "...Google and Citi are purchasing the Alta IV project and will lease it back to Terra-Gen, who will manage and operate the wind projects under long-term agreements. We hope this structure encourages more investment by enabling other types of investors who might not typically consider wind projects."

Here is a breakdown of Google's other green investments (minus the Tehachapi project).

The Tehachapi deal brings Google tantalizingly close to the resource-rich and geographically-blessed San Joaquin Valley, which we believe could be a center of renewable energy.

We have the sun (which we'll probably start to notice in earnest in a few weeks), thousands of acres of flat land reasonably free of environmental issues, access to the transmission grid, and a rich agricultural heritage that lays the foundation for the possible development of biofuels.

The Valley's farmers already are leaders in renewable energy - check out this story of a Hanford dairy that is using solar to cut its power use 75% - and will likely boost those efforts as the sustainability movement grabs hold.

Is it unrealistic to think that Google could someday invest in the Valley - and provide an economic spark to a region that is primed for better days?

Image of Alta Wind Energy Center by gazettenet.com