SACRAMENTO – Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, and Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, D-Coachella, led a joint committee hearing Thursday in Sacramento focusing on the state’s geothermal potential, particularly in areas near the Salton Sea.
Geothermal energy accounts for about 4 percent of California’s power supply, and some state lawmakers want to see that number grow by tapping more of the vast reservoir of hot water and steam around the Salton Sea.
Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, and Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, D-Coachella, led a joint committee hearing Thursday in Sacramento focusing on the state’s geothermal potential, particularly in areas near the Salton Sea.
“Only 50 percent of the total identified geo-power in California is being utilized. Why is that number so low?” Hueso said, starting off the discussion.
Karl Gawell of the Geothermal Energy Association explained that relatively weak demand for geothermal energy has been an issue, and “we’re also seeing inadequate transmission, we’re seeing permitting delays and we’re seeing policies which don’t really recognize the full value of geothermal as we go forward.”
The Imperial Irrigation District has been promoting a plan to develop more geothermal energy plants around the shrinking Salton Sea. The agency, which owns land beneath the lake, proposes to generate money through leases to remedy air pollution problems as receding water leaves more lakebed exposed to winds that can kick up dust.
Some of the revenues, officials say, could be used to cover up exposed lakebed and lessen the environmental hazards of a smaller lake.
“We’ll be looking at what transmission upgrades would be necessary to take the generation from the Salton Sea and from the Imperial Valley area to make it deliverable,” Karen Edson, vice president of policy and client services for the California Independent System Operator Corp., said during the hearing.
Kevin Kelley, general manager of IID, promoted his agency’s proposal to expand transmission lines to be able to carry energy from geothermal plants near the Salton Sea, and said time is of the essence because after 2017, flows into the lake will abruptly decline as a result of the nation’s largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer.
“The particular problems of the Salton Sea require a more aggressive public policy response,” Kelley said.
The district’s plan for new transmission lines needs to be given urgent attention, Kelley said. “The study process is good, but it really doesn’t recognize the severity of the situation at the Salton Sea.”
Edson agreed that it’s appropriate to treat the matter with urgency, and Pérez also said time is running out.
“For too long, we’ve been neglecting it, and it’s time that we move the ball forward,” said Pérez, who has advocated for the Salton Sea’s restoration since he was elected to the Assembly in 2008.
It’s unclear what additional steps lawmakers could take to adjust state policies in ways that would encourage more development of geothermal energy. But some of the energy industry representatives at the hearing recommended that the Legislature take a stance supporting a mixed portfolio of solar, wind and geothermal energy to help meet California’s goals for reducing greenhouse gases.
“If we are actually going to meet our climate change goals going forward, we’re going to have to add additional generation that has low or zero carbon. Otherwise, we’ll never get there, so I think there’s a great deal of growth potential for all renewables in California,” said Jan Smutny-Jones, executive director of the Independent Energy Producers Association.
He said it would help if the Legislature would agree on a clear statement that California is aiming for a mix of renewable energy sources, including more geothermal.