By David Siders
dsiders@sacbee.com
Published: Saturday, Mar. 24, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

GOLETA – Last summer, Gov. Jerry Brown flew to Blythe, in the California desert, to break ground on the largest solar power project in the world.

There, in a tent near the Arizona border, Uwe T. Schmidt, chairman and chief executive officer of developer Solar Trust of America, proclaimed the “dawn of a new era,” and Brown, who has tied his job-creation effort inextricably to renewable energy, said “This is really big.”

The project has since faltered. Last year, Solar Trust’s parent company, Solar Millennium, filed for bankruptcy in a German court. On Tuesday, solarhybrid AG, the company that moved to buy the project, announced that it, too, is insolvent.

Even as other solar projects move forward, the breakdown in Blythe suggests the technological and financial uncertainties of a still-young industry.

For the Democratic governor, it is a setback to his campaign to create 20,000 new megawatts of renewable electricity by 2020, when utilities are required by a law Brown signed last year to obtain one-third of their electricity from renewable sources.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Brown said of the solar industry Friday at a conference on green energy and the economy. “Scientific and technological progress moves by trial and error.”

In a report last month, the California Energy Commission estimated that pending projects could deliver enough electricity to meet Brown’s goals by 2020, but it cautioned that success will depend, among other conditions, on the ability of developers to secure financing and permits.

To meet Brown’s goals, said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the Energy Commission, is “going to take a lot of substantial effort.”

“There are challenges,” Weisenmiller said, “but I think we’re going to get there.”

In addition to the current supply of electricity from renewable sources – about 10,000 megawatts, or 16 percent of the state’s total power supply – local and state agencies approved permits for an estimated 16,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects in 2010 and 2011. They expect to permit projects capable of delivering 5,000 megawatts or more this year.

But not all of those projects will succeed. The industry’s failure rate is as high as 40 percent, observers estimate. Of those that work, some sputter through ownership and design changes. Part or all of the Blythe project may still be developed, though when and by whom is unclear.

“In theory, the fact that we’re having failures is actually a sign that the market’s working – that we have some comfort because there’s a lot of people out there, and out of this the best projects will probably emerge,” said Michael Picker, a senior adviser to Brown on renewable energy.

Tom Georgis, senior vice president of development of Santa Monica-based SolarReserve LLC, which is building a 150-megawatt project north of Blythe, said his company is looking over Solar Millennium, “taking a look at some of their assets to see if it might make sense.”

Some of the state’s largest projects were approved in 2010, before Brown took office. That year, as developers rushed to meet deadlines for federal incentives for solar projects, the Energy Commission approved nine major solar projects, including the $5 billion, 1,000-megawatt project in Blythe, and a nearly 400-megawatt project, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation System, in the Mojave Desert.

The Ivanpah project is under construction, and its developer, BrightSource Energy, has two projects pending before the Energy Commission.

California is not unaccustomed to a governor promoting renewable energy – Brown’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed Assembly Bill 32, California’s landmark greenhouse gas reduction law. Joe Desmond, a former commission chairman and an executive at BrightSource, said Brown is “taking it up a notch.”

Even projects that move forward, however, do not do so without difficulties. Many are delayed by land-use disputes or by environmental concerns, including kit fox and desert tortoise habitat.

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