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California's Central Valley Eyes Post-Carbon Era

It's no more than an early indicator now, but soon California's oil/gas-rich and agricultural-based central valley may become a harbinger for America's transition to the post-carbon age. A host of small alternative energy businesses are springing up in the oil and farm heartland of the state, along with a proposed cutting-edge carbon capture and storage (CCS) project that recently won a $308 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant from the stimulus package.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office has been quick to seize the opportunity to promote progress in its green jobs push, although the state overall and the San Joaquin Valley, in particular, show double-digit unemployment figures exceeding 12% in some areas, the central valley being one of them.

With this increased joblessness, the usually skeptical oil and farming sectors that in the past would pay little attention are now embracing solar energy and other alternatives as "well suited" for the central valley, according to news reports in the Fresno Bee and other major news media in the sprawling region within the nation's most populous state.

As of Oct. 31 Fresno County had 41 companies apply for state solar energy rebates, a better than threefold jump in two years, according to a sales executive with REC Solar Inc., a San Luis Obispo-based firm with 30 employees in Fresno, the Bee reported.

Among the recent influx of alternative energy organizations in the Fresno area is a nonprofit, Grid Alternatives, which opened an office in July with four paid employees and two volunteers from the federal AmeriCorps VISTA community service programs. The organization is helping qualified low-income families cut their energy bills with solar installations.

Farther south near the Bakersfield area, energy giants BP Alternative Energy, Rio Tinto, Occidental Petroleum, Southern California Edison Co. and Hydrogen Energy International are involved in a $1 billion hydrogen-fired power generation and CCS project in the oil/gas fields near Occidental's Elk Hills production fields. The project, now sporting the DOE stimulus package grant, promises to give a $2 billion boost to California's sagging economy with up to 1,500 new construction jobs and 100 long-term operating jobs.

The Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) project recently was accepted by the California Energy Commission (CEC) for its 12-month permitting process. As proposed the project envisions a 250 MW generation plant in Kern County in the southern end of the central valley. The five-member CEC deemed HECA to be "data adequate" and ready for the state's year-long power plant permitting process at the end of the summer (see NGI, Aug. 31).

Even with the latest large awards, Schwarzenegger's staff indicated that the governor will continue to press the Obama administration for more funds.

"The governor's leadership is critical," according to Jonathan Briggs, an executive in the Americas for Hydrogen Energy International, writing in an opinion column in the Sacramento Bee. "But California's regulatory and legislative climate should further encourage the development of new energy technology."

Briggs argued that governmental incentives need to spread beyond just renewables and energy efficiency to projects like what he called "low-carbon baseload power generation," such as the demonstration project with carbon capture in which his company is a partner. The carrot he offers is green jobs and a way for "California to turn the corner on job creation."

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