Behind the curtain, the hand controlling the flow of energy from power plants to the utilities is the California Independent System Operator Corporation (the ISO).

The ISO doesn't control California's renewable resources, but it influences how much of the resources can get used in the system through its part in the pre-permitting process and its management of interconnections. There is pressure from Sacramento and from renewables advocates to streamline bureaucratic processes and get more renewable energy on the wires.

The problem, says Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT) Executive Director V. John White, is the ISO's perception of what constitutes renewable energy. "The ISO views the grid through the lens of conventional resources and their bias -- which is, we hope, in the process of being overcome -- is to try and make the renewables be like and act like the conventional resources and to punish them when they're not."

"I think we're in transition," he added. "On a given day the ISO can be the biggest nightmare or a potential ally."

Concerns about the pace will pick up as 2010 wanes because billions of dollars of federal stimulus act money that have already been awarded will not be paid out if their projects do not break ground by the end of the year.

Oak Creek Energy Systems is developing wind in the Tehachapi Mountains, where the ISO helped get the new Southern California Edison (SCE) ~4,500 megawatt capacity Windhub Substation on line.

While substantial construction is under way right now, Tehachapi has taken years of planning.

"I see their performance as quite good, and improving, but of course there are some concerns," said Oak Creek President Hal Romanowitz. "While a lot is happening, the process is still painfully slow...However, no one other than Texas has been able to come close to matching the success of CAISO, in terms of actual construction of major transmission and in the key cost allocation matters, and in getting the transmission placed in the right locations to benefit a great variety of renewable projects."

Karen Edson, Vice President for External Affairs at the ISO, said things have changed at the organization. "A key focus of ours today -- which has been in place for the last several years -- is making sure we can successfully integrate renewables to achieve the state's 33% RPS objective," Edson said. "We've accelerated the [interconnection] process quite aggressively in a manner that's recognized nationally as a progressive and accelerated way to proceed."

"We moved it up six months," Stephanie McCorkle, the ISO Director of Communications, emphasized. "That's unprecedented. There are some people who would like to see it done faster, but we're on the same page."

The ISO monitors and manages over 80% of California's electricity and serves over 30 million Californians. That covers 55,000 megawatts of generation capacity from more than 1,400 generation units of all kinds, which are connected via 25,526 circuit-miles of transmission lines.

Maintenance of the system's integrity and reliability is ISO's core responsibility. It is charged by state law to maintain uninterrupted power flows. Through the interconnections it approves, the ISO has much to do with what power sources generate California's electricity. California's flow of power hangs in the balance of the ISO's every real-time decision.

"There were, I think, significant concerns earlier in the year that our process was not timed to accommodate the projects that were applying for stimulus funds," Edson said. "We accelerated that process. We moved things ahead and put it on a timeline that I think everyone agrees will meet the deadlines those projects face."

CEERT's John White, who has been an environmental and renewable energy advocate for three decades and who was also a member of the California ISO Board of Governors in the 1990s, said the ISO currently is, in fact, "making it easier for stimulus projects, particularly large-scale wind and solar, to be able to interconnect to the grid without the same burdens of deposits and upfront financing as they would normally require."

"At the same time," White said "They're kind of like the air traffic controllers of the grid and they really see renewables as disruptive, as difficult to manage, so there's a tension that we're struggling with. At any given moment, the ISO can be the biggest barrier to getting a project sited. And yet I think they are trying and they're under pressure to try to do better."

Recent rule changes at the ISO suggest the intention to interconnect California's burgeoning roster of renewable sources despite the complexity it introduces -- and the reflexive resistance it creates. There are structural issues, though, over which the ISO has less control.

White said one of the biggest hurdles is the division of responsibility in the system between municipally owned utilities (MOUs) like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and investor-owned utilities (IOUs) like SCE and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). White described this as "the Balkanization of the grid between the munis and the IOUs." 

"Just look at L.A.," White said. "You've got a completely separate grid between Edison and the DWP even though within the basin there are physical resources that would make it much easier to integrate renewables. But the ISO doesn't have access to the DWP resources."

Edson, for the ISO's part, noted that balancing isn't easy. "We have long established working relationships with the other balancing authorities in the West," she said. "There's a lot of cooperation among them and I would expect that to continue and probably to be enhanced as we grapple with the technical issues associated with integrating variable resources.

"We operate 80% of the California grid and have been doing that successfully, and expect to continue to do that successfully," Edson added.

Developer Romanowitz was in agreement. "Today we have something that is working very well, in spite of the fact we would like it to go faster."

Tags: california, doe, efficiency, energy efficiency, iso, solar, utilities, water, wind