California Governor Jerry Brown wants 12,000 megawatts of distributed generation (DG) to be part of the 20,000-plus megawatts of renewable capacity the state’s utilities have been ordered to put in place by 2020. That's a lot of rooftop and ground-mounted solar, small and community wind, small biomass/biogas production, combined heat and power and other such local renewables.

“There are many thousands of megawatts left to do,” explained Steven Weissman, co-author of the report California’s Transition to Local Renewable Energy: 12,000 Megawatts by 2020 from U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE).

Most of California’s DG will likely come from solar. “The good news is the California Solar Initiative [CSI] the CPUC oversees, which pertains to retrofit installations, and a comparable program the CEC oversees for new construction, should hit their 3,000-megawatt target by 2017. The bad news is it will have taken ten years. To meet the 12,000 megawatt goal, we’re going to have more than 3,000 megawatts still to make up and less than ten years to do it.”

To create a roadmap, Brown gathered players in the solar private sector, representatives of the state’s utilities, and leaders of California trade groups, environmentalists and labor unions at UCLA last summer and charged them with finding a way to install the twelve gigawatts despite regulatory, financial and political obstacles. “Find the path through the thicket,” he told them. “On the other side, we will have our solar future.”

The Governor’s office asked CLEE’s Weissman and Jeffrey Russell to expand on the UCLA conference stakeholder input with further research and analysis and build a comprehensive outline of how to overcome the many remaining planning, permitting, financing, construction and interconnection barriers slowing California’s DG.

The recent loss of the state’s aging San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) that left the California Independent System Operator (ISO) scrambling to fill the resulting 2,200-megawatt gap underscores the key irony of DG development. “Developing these smaller projects to meet our energy needs,” Weissman observed, “requires extensive involvement by residential customers, government officials at every level, and business executives from companies large and small.”

In other words, DG should be easier to site and build than it is.

In doing the report for the Governor’s office, Weissman came to believe the building of local renewables must be effectively streamlined. “The utilities are saying they are going to be able to meet the goal just with the large facilities they are taking under contract,” Weissmann said, “but not every project for which there is a contract is going to make it.”

He also believes the building local renewables can be effectively streamlined. “It is remarkable to see how the assumptions that went in at the start of the CSI seem to apply,” he observed. “The hope was that CSI would help promote reduction in the cost of installed photovoltaics and, though it is hard to measure cause and effect, it is undoubtedly true that the cost of installed PV is a lot lower than it was when the program started.”

And, he added, “the hope was that by ramping down the incentive in steps, there would not be a loss of sales and, over time, sales have increased. When the CSI goes away, there is still reason to expect that the net metering program will continue to provide enough incentive, on top of federal tax credits, to get people to install.”

At the UCLA conference, Brown set the tone for making all of California’s programs -- its Renewable Auction Mechanism, its Feed-in Tariff and its Net Energy Metering, for instance -- as effective as the CSI. "The system has evolved tens of thousands of laws, hundreds of thousands of regulations,” Brown said, but “you have to push [because] if we let the process unfold, we’re not going to get to the goal.”

The CLEE report describes ways the state can expedite the building of local renewable energy by pushing changes in state, county and municipal governments, at the electric utilities, and in the private sector. It recommends reforms in financing, permitting and transmission and distribution system planning.

“The various agencies -- the California Independent System Operator (ISO), the PUC and the California Energy Commission -- are going to be working together,” Brown promised at UCLA. “It is true when you have 38 million people,” he said, “that there’s always going to be somebody who says 'no' to change, and in our participatory system, any old fool can object to anything.” If counties, municipalities or regulators block development, he said, his office will act, because “some kinds of opposition you have to crush.”

The Governor’s office, Weissman found, has already begun implementing interconnection reforms that will eliminate costs and delays for developers and designing permitting reforms that will make rules, fees and scheduling more uniform.

“There is going to have to be a lot done on the utility level,” Weissman said. “The utilities have tended to close their local offices and pull back to a broader level. They tend to look at their resource needs on a service territory-wide basis. But in order to make distributed generation a significant factor and a positive contribution to the grid, there is going to have to be a renewed emphasis on local resource planning.”

And “state and local governments [must] think of themselves as consumers of these technologies and develop as ambitious a program as possible to promote the procurement and installation of local renewables.”

There will be a webinar covering the study’s key findings and the most current California DG capacity numbers on Thursday, June 14 at 2 p.m. Pacific, co-sponsored by the Governor’s office and CLEE.