Timothy Johnson

CIVE 401 Civil Engineering and Society

Fall 2009

December 18, 2009

With the current push to cut back fossil fuel usage and phase in renewable sources, the energy marketplace has been presented with a slew of challenges. Not only must renewable sources attempt to replace the output of the existing non-renewable infrastructure, but they must aptly support and facilitate the natural growth of the energy grid. Early developments in California showed it to be one of the most promising sites for renewable technology - wind in particular - but modern circumstance has taken the state in a handful of other directions. Though wind once held a monopoly on California's energy outlook, it has since been rivaled by an array of other sources, with solar photovoltaic among the most prominent of its competitors. The future of wind energy in California is thus distinctly unclear; though the source has a distinctive past, present, and future, questions still remain as to whether it will be as important as some of the state' other energy projects.

From spacious deserts to densely-packed urban districts, California's diverse landscape has made it an ideal breeding ground for innovation. While technology and agriculture tend to be its more pronounced fields of accomplishment, energy production trails closely behind in prominence. As a pioneer of renewable wind energy in the early 1980's, the state has a history of successful wind ventures; from 1981 to 1991 alone, wind production expanded from a mere 20-MW to upwards of 1700-MW annually. Based on such an astounding rate of growth and wind's versatility in meeting local energy needs, the US Department of Energy made projections that by 2010 - under ideal circumstances - wind energy would account for 12% of the entire nation's energy supply. Needless to say, such forecasting has proven to be over-optimistic, as current wind generation accounts for only a tenth of that value. According to the American Wind Energy Association's 2008 report, California's capacity had only grown to a total of 2517-MW, accounting for a mere 48% expansion over seventeen years. In comparison, Texas installed 2671-MW of capacity in 2008 alone, ranking the state as the nation's leader with a notable 7116-MW annual capacity. The rest of the nation flaunts explosive growth as well, making California appear remarkably stagnant; the former king of wind seems to have been rather harshly dethroned.

But the question remains: why has California's wind prominence fallen so far? As Paul Gipe notes in Wind Energy Comes of Age, wind energy's success in California's has been almost entirely dependent on current marketplace circumstance. Post-1991 declines in California's wind expansion were not a matter of finance per se, as similar Danish developments flourished with only a sixth of California's total funding; rather, a surge in interest in natural gas induced a drop in energy prices that made it a far more favorable source at the time. Wind, while still technologically viable, became a secondary interest, and to this day yet to recover; though the natural gas bubble burst around the turn of the century, wind never re-established itself as the source to meet California's ever-expanding needs.

At present, solar photovoltaic projects have taken the state - and particularly southern California - by storm. A study published by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at Berkeley earlier this year noted that average PV costs had "declined substantially" over the past decade, and cited a nearly 30% drop in per-watt pricing. Most importantly, these drops were most noticeable amongst small solar installations, which have been the target of energy projects statewide. For example, Southern California Edison Co. recently launched a $785 million PV project in San Diego that will generate 250-MW of annual power entirely from rooftop installations. One of the project's core selling points is that building owners will be granted a portion of the revenue generated from the panels, creating financial incentive for investment that is particularly suited for high-density regions. These small installations have neither the aesthetic or environmental impact of wind turbines, giving them substantial political advantage with comparatively little drawback. Additionally, they are flexible in such a way that can contour to a wide range of structural shapes and applications; Carlsbad's new desalination plant, for instance, has designed solar panels to be placed atop its storage tanks to help offset plant energy consumption. As turbines lack this versatility, they struggle to find a place in an energy market that continues to drift more into micro-scale generation and not solely rely on massive projects.

Likewise, another important consideration is that of policy requiring a certain percentage of a state's energy to come from renewable sources. Twenty-eight states and counting have established mandates, and compliance is not an instantaneous matter. To compensate, municipalities - including all of the major districts in California - have resorted to a method known as distributed generation which allows one local energy grid to share its overages with another. Utilizing this "sharing" technique, grids can help each other meet their renewable energy quotas and comply with standards without sacrificing functionality or productivity. The catch is that 98% of distributed generation power comes from PV sources, again making them a favorable financial alternative to wind. California's physical makeup seems particularly partial to such arrangements, as low-demand counties with available land for energy development can sell excess renewable energy to the high-demand counties for profit. This, in turn, provides funds for additional development, and has laid the groundwork for the current explosion in distributed generation facilities. To drive the point home, Paul Sheaffer, director of Resource Dynamics Corp, argues that "[Wind] has better economics on a utility scale," noting further that solar photovoltaic installations "dwarf other distributed generation technologies."

As noted earlier, however, wind is certainly not dead-in-the-water as a renewable alternative - the growth elsewhere in the nation proves as much. The American Wind Energy Association speculates that, given current development trends nationwide, wind energy may account for as much as 20% of the nation's total energy generation by 2030. Despite its sluggish growth rate, California nevertheless ranks as third in total wind energy output, and is certain to partake heavily in these projected developments. Studies performed in the late 1970's by the California Energy Commission estimated the state's open range land to have a potential of 527 billion KW if fully developed with wind turbines. While such capacity is both unfeasible for environmental and political reasons, the tapping of even a small fraction of land would be significant in meeting California's future needs. Likewise, additional proposals included a series of mixed hydroelectric/wind facilities that would allow water originally intended for hydroelectric purposes to be stored during periods of ample wind. Given the increasing concerns regarding water supply matters in California during periods of drought, discussion of such projects is likely to surface again in the future. Given that solar generation and construction projects have developed a sort of symbiosis between one another, it does not seem too outlandish for hydro and wind to form a similar bond in the coming decades.

Furthermore, though solar may dominate the majority of California's installations in recent years, wind developments continue to be built a steady pace. Twenty-five 2-MW turbines were recently put online on the Campo Indian Reservation for a total cost of only $51 million. Running on a timeline of only nine months from ground-break to production, the project proved to be a quick, simple, and efficient expansion to the energy grid with no outstanding drawbacks. While other expansion projects currently in the works by Sempra Generation, San Diego's local energy provider, include a ratio of 2:1 MW of solar to wind, they note the modular nature of wind such that - should the need arise - the facilities will have the ability to up to quintuple their capacity. Thus, while solar still comprises the bulk of the currently funded projects, significant attention is still being given to wind as a reliable source down the road. While certainly not a forerunner in renewable technology in California, it undoubtedly has a place in both short-term and long-term energy goals.

Considering wind and solar are the two hot-topic issues when it comes to the discussion of renewable energy, it is interesting how the financial climate in California has drifted away from using wind as a primary renewable source. In lieu of its status as the pioneer of wind in the Western Hemisphere (and largely the world, for that matter), California's engagement with the subject beyond its 1980's boom is rather unremarkable. Though growth has never altogether ceased, wind currently averages only a net increase of 50-MW of capacity annually - less than a third of that during its peak years and notably less than numerous other states countrywide. Yet, despite the fact that a substantial portion of the state's premium turbine lands are already developed, figures put forth by the California Energy Commission paint a picture far more vivid than one of exhaustion; much like the fable of the tortoise and the hair, the state may yet reclaim its status as one of the nation's top wind energy producers if given enough time.

As is, the current situation appears to boil down to nothing more than a glorified popularity contest which, simply put, solar leads by an outstanding margin. Given the whimsical nature of California's energy prospects over the last three decades, however, this can certainly change. From wind in the 1980's to natural gas in the 1990's to solar in the 2000's, the 2010 decade is hardly predictable - if past markets are any indication, the title of number one renewable source is still up for grabs. Yet, be that as it may, political mandates may overrule popular consensus; even if public opinion were to shift more favorably toward wind, solar still holds an almost exclusive grasp on distributed generation systems. Given that distributed generation systems are projected to double their revenue potential by 2013, solar's economic feasibility makes it a prime candidate for dredging through California's current financial mire - not only do they help meet requirements, but they provide flexible financing options to new projects.

The future of wind in California is decidedly a mixed bag. On one hand, the state has an impressive history of wind generation that has garnered global recognition for some time; on the other, wind does not seem to meet California's immediate renewable needs. In fact, the California Energy Commission's public list of projects extensively details current and future solar developments throughout the state, but lacks a similar list for wind developments; instead, it merely displays a list of prospective sites that may be considered at a later date. As such, the CEC seems to passively support the solar as the unofficial vanguard for the transition from non-renewable to renewable energy in California. Still, wind has a marked place in California's future; the state currently is in a state of transition, and renewable sources are still in their infantile stages. Thus, while it may not serve as a transitory source, enough land area remains undeveloped that, as a long term resource, it is here to stay.


Gipe, P. 1995. Wind Energy Comes of Age; Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Righter, R. W. 1996. Wind Energy in America: A History; University of Oklahoma Press.

Armistead, T. F. 2009. Distributed Generation. Engineering News Record, 1 June 2009, 24-27.

Anonymous. 2006. Advanced Materials & Processes [0882-7958], Vol.164, 2, 24.

Development Projects.

Large Solar Energy Projects.