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Cali Regulators Hail End of Startup Phase for Clean Energy Projects

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California’s aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard program has finally started to put a dent in the state power grid, more than six years since its launch and just around the corner from the first major deadline: 20 percent renewable energy in every utility’s portfolio by 2010. The California Public Utilities Commission reported this week that 870 MW of new clean generating capacity┬áhas been added since the start of the program — with more than 500 MW coming online in 2008 alone. That’s more than four times the amount added in any other year since the program was launched in 2003. As commissioners noted in their quarterly report this week:

Clearly, 2008 was a turning point for the RPS program and contracted projects are beginning to deliver in large numbers. This may represent the end of the start-up phase of the RPS program, as contracts signed in the earlier years of the program are now built and the renewable market begins to mature.

It’s not just the amount of energy that marks the turning point, but the type. Geothermal and small hydro projects currently make up the bulk of those certified by the utility commission as qualifying under the portfolio standard. But in 2008, solar projects accounted for the majority of the 24 GW worth of bids submitted for contracts with California’s PG&E (s PCG), Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric. According to the utility commission’s report, utilities were offered 30 percent more solar energy in 2008 than in 2007 (meaning solar companies said they could commit to selling the utilities that much more energy).

This hardly gives utilities a chance to rest easy with their current energy portfolios, however. PG&E, for one, has announced a steady stream of contracts: Just today, the utility commission announced approval for two new PG&E contracts that are slated to add up to 103 MW of additional wind capacity by the end of 2009 and 210 MW of additional solar capacity (generated at a plant owned by SunPower (s SPWR) to the utility’s portfolio by the end of 2012.

But state regulations require actual power deliveries, not just contracts. The RPS mandates utilities to consistently increase the portion of renewables in their total generating capacity — adding an additional 1 percent of annual sales from renewable sources every year — until clean energy makes up 20 percent of their portfolios. They have until 2010 to meet that target, and another decade to make it to one-third renewables.