Warren Buffett

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.

Corporate America's secret truth about energy

Did you know you work for an energy company?

It doesn't matter if your employer is a retailer, an insurance company or a manufacturer of widgets. If energy isn't influencing corporate decisions, it will soon.

From a new Deloitte Touche report: "Every company is an energy company. This might come as a surprise to many of them. But a decade from now, a company without an 'energy and sustainability' department could be as unusual as one without a human resources department. Either that, or it might be out of business. "

The sustainability movement is growing. Sure, it's in infancy, but energy can account for up to 20% of a corporation's expense sheet, and is increasingly unreliable and hard to budget. So, the motivation to slash costs and become more efficient while decreasing the carbon footprint is there.

Sustainability, at its heart, is just good business. "The most crucial spur for action may be the risk that a company’s operations could be disrupted by energy shortages, outages, or an unplanned and unmanageable rise in the price of energy," Deloitte says.

"The sooner companies begin to understand and actively manage their energy use—and their energy sources, including possible ways to produce their own energy—the faster they’ll enter a more enlightened world, one with the potential for a number of advantages including significant savings, a better bottom line, greater customer loyalty, a cost-edge over competitors, lower business risk, and a company-wide awareness of sustainability that can rein in resource waste across the board."

I particularly like the phrase, "Enlightened world." It's true, judging from our vantage point as a nonprofit involved in energy efficiency work with cities throughout the San Joaquin Valley, and with educational partners. People want cleaner air and energy.

And, perhaps, more employment possibilities. Check out this story about building energy rating and disclosure, which is close to our heart, and this one about growth and salaries.

Environmental enlightenment is growing. Well, maybe not in Congress, but Corporate America (Honeywell is doing something cool), the military, professional sports, schools, local governments and, yes, even NASCAR are picking up the theme. Even my teen-age daughter references the carbon footprint when I suggest she go pick up something I forgot at the store.

"I don't want to increase my carbon footprint," she says from her position on the couch.

Ok, so that isn't exactly what I mean, but you get the picture. Sustainability is "in", despite what you hear from politicians running for election, and could be a solution, not a problem. Even Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest men and most famous investor acknowledges it here.

Deloitte suggests ways to enhance corporate sustainability efforts, suggesting directors make them a mandate. They should measure progress, offer incentives to employees who improve efficiency and then springboard off their sustainability efforts to build their brands.

"The drive to sustainability is a drive to creativity and innovation," The Deloitte report states as its final paragraph." May the cleanest, most energy efficient corporations win."

Warren Buffett Shows Support For Solar Power In California

Warren Buffett's energy holdings company is buying a mammoth solar plant being built in the Carrizo Plain, just west of the San Joaquin Valley.

MidAmerican Energy Holdings said it is acquiring the $2 billion Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County from First Solar because it expands the company's renewable energy portfolio and because it, "...demonstrates that solar energy is a commercially viable technology without the support of governmental loan guarantees..."

The purchase occurred after First Solar failed to get a federal loan guarantee to secure construction of the plant, according to this Reuters story.

Buffett, known as the "Oracle of Omaha," already invests in wind energy and in China's BYD Co. Ltd., which makes electric cars and batteries, and has other green technologies, including solar. This purchase of a 550-megawatt photovoltaic power plant - enough to power 160,000 homes when it is finished in early 2015 - is a sign of support for the emerging solar industry. It also follows the high-profile implosion of Solyndra, a solar company that failed after receiving a $535 million government loan guarantee.

First Solar will build and operate the plant for MidAmerican. Construction began in November and will create about 400 construction jobs and 15 permanent operations and maintenance jobs. The expected economic impact on the region during construction is expected to be abut $417 million over 25 years.

The Carrizo Plain, along with Kern, Kings and Fresno counties, is part of a region in Central California that is a potential hotbed for solar projects. Kern and Fresno counties alone are fielding more than 60 applications, according to this recent blog post. Those include a proposal for a huge solar farm in Westlands Water District that would cover 3,600 acres of retired farmland. Find out more here.

Meanwhile, officials in various counties and in the state are trying to balance the interests of farmers with those of this potentially new industry. Much of that conflict revolves around the Williamson Act, which protects farm land from development. A law signed in November, SB 618, attempts to help ease those conflicts. (Here is more on that bill)

Buffett wouldn't have invested in this solar plant if he didn't expect rosy returns, including some impressive government incentives, according to this blog post. And it remains to be seen how large the solar industry will become in Central California, but this investment by one of the nation's richest men shows that solar is becoming more viable, particularly in California.

Photo of Carrizo Plain National Monument from Bureau of Land Mangement