Why Schwarzenegger wants you disco-dancing with a solar-powered jacuzzi

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Arnold Schwarzenegger may have retired to Hollywood, but the actor-turned-governor still pushes his image as a climate hero and clean energy champion.

At times, the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas earlier this month seemed more like a chummy college reunion than a trade conference. I can only assume that it's a good date in the diary to arrange meetings where the real deals are done rather than simply a chance to reinvigorate Washington-west coast networks.

In terms of messaging, it was a difficult conference to navigate with only the occasional sense of where clean energy policy in the US might be heading. Senator Harry Reid's opening press conference gave a confusing impression of the first utility-scale Native American solar power project on federal lands; the energy secretary seemed more interested in nuclear and carbon capture storage than was suited to the event and interior secretary Jewell seemed a safe successor to Ken Salazar, but both failed to inspire the audience; one of the Senator's ‘heavies’ nearly prevented the photograph on this blog from being taken and another appeared like he wanted to take me out at the knees for not walking straight to the press tables that were situated as far from the podium as possible without being in another room. I wonder what kind of impression Reid's DC assistants are trying to make with a style of communication that chills the warm regard among clean energy colleagues in the western United States. So much for “Energising the Future”, the NCES catchline this year.

Last year, President Bill Clinton brought the audience almost to the brink of political wonk hysteria. This year, it fell to Schwarzenegger to bring some star quality and levity to proceedings. Schwarzenegger's environmental and renewable achievements as governor are legion. The California Solar Initiative, the state's first Renewable Portfolio Standard, the nation's highest tailpipe emission standards and California's carbon market were just a few of the green policies or initiatives brought to life during his administration.

“When I became governor I saw the opportunity to continue the environmental work that has been done in the past,” he said. “California is 40% more energy efficient than the rest of the country. If the whole of the US was as energy efficient as California, we could close 75% of all the coal-fired power plants. That's the equivalent of taking 187 million cars off the road.”

Although he now wields much less power than he did up to 2011, his legacy continues not just on screen but at the University of Southern California's Schwarzenegger Institute. The film star is not afraid to boast (but in a way that still makes him likeable); however, not once did he mention his USC institute.

Like the 42nd president of the United States, Schwarzenegger knows how to please a crowd and repeated Clinton's sentiment about communicating the benefits of clean energy to “ordinary folk”. For Clinton it was about jobs and economic growth; for Schwarzenegger it was about being able to use your jacuzzi without guilt (and jobs).

“Having a green economy creates jobs – you have to have an upbeat and positive message,” he said.

But Saturday Night Fever did more for the nation's health than any government agency could achieve, he said.

“Disco-dancing became so big that all over the world they were building tens of thousands of discotheques and everyone burnt more calories and did more fitness – I was running around promoting fitness [at that time] and here was one movie that did more than anyone could do, there were no laws passed.

“We've got to make it attractive and connect with the people, everyone talks about … what happens to the world in 50 years but if we walk away from here and don't tell the average folks out there what can you do to participate and be part of this great crusade… you can make the decision if you want to have solar panels on your house and you can take all the jacuzzis that you want … people just don't know what they can do to participate in this crusade and really feel good about it rather than negative.”

After the rhetoric came the reality of what it takes to clean the grid. A less convivial atmosphere crept in – slight, but discernible – during a discussion about the future of the grid.

Arno Harris, the chief executive at Recurrent Energy, said: “We're at a remarkable point in the development of renewables in the US, a transition to the era of mainstream renewables. We're in a period where cost is no longer the primary objection to renewables. The barrier really starts to become the physical and operating limits in the grid itself in terms of how much variable generation is in there.

“The tools we have today, the grid we have today, many experts estimate could get to 30-40% renewables but we really need to go further than that if we're going to tap that bounty of affordable wind and solar. The challenge we face is this complex Rubik's cube of market issues, technology issues, regulatory issues and political issues. It has the potential to be a very challenging problem to solve because of all the interests involved.”

The answer is a flexible grid, an electricity system that can move energy around regions, so it can move it from where it has been generated to where it is needed, he said.

“It's a system that can encourage markets for flexible generation products, electricity products that can ramp up and down and provide regulation services to incorporate all that variable generation.”

In October 2014, California will have the benefit of a regional real-time energy imbalance market (EIM), which is designed to provide ease of entry for balancing authorities and optimise supply and demand with more precision through five-minute energy dispatch.

The EIM should help integrate renewables across the western states, but utilities still need to cooperate more as they have voluntarily in the Midwest and eastern United States, said Doug Larson, executive director at the Western Interstate Energy Board.

“We're entering a post-RPS environment in which cost is going to be the driver for the deployment of new renewables,” he said. “The good news is, the price is coming down for wind and solar and the price of coal, gas, nuclear is going up. The bad news in the west is that we haven't found yet the cheap way to integrate renewable generation. There are things individual utilities can … but the big mother load for the west is increasing cooperation.

“We generally lag in the West in terms of inter-utility cooperation and that's our big challenge. We're probably over-building gas-fired generation because every utility is on its own, it's a western cowboy attitude. We've got to integrate variable generation on our own; the net effect is likely to be an overbuild of gas-fired generation and some stranded investment [for merchant suppliers].”

Dan Arvizu, director and chief executive at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said: “Public policy works: we've seen a growing renewable energy and energy efficiency technology industry.

“Solar is going to be in a Renaissance period for the next few decades [but it's now] at 1%. One of the things we try to understand is the potential [of] integration and scale of renewable energy into the grid. If we're going to put renewable energy on the grid at scale, there are a number of challenges we need to address and look at from a top-down sophisticated roadmap way.”

Last year's NREL Renewable Electricity Futures Study found that renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total US electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country. But the theoretical maximum penetration would be challenged by the will to create policies to reach those goals.

“We don't have a limitation on how much we can aspire to, but there are challenges in how you might go about doing that and it does relate to public policy, transmission, cooperation and science and additional development of technologies,” Arvizu said.

“[The question is] can you get there at a cost that is lower than the cost of the current system and its trajectory, and the answer to that is still to be decided. But we have scenarios that have been based on analytical underpinnings that would suggest that it is possible, we stop short of staying we can achieve it because we have to decide if we want to get there first.”

Harris is one of those pushing to “get there” and said that an increased RPS in California could be a critical “rivet” in reaching the goals of President Barack Obama's climate action plan.

Benjamin Fowke, chairman, president and chief executive of Xcel Energy, said: “If we continue to say the way to create the market is to have a state say this is what the percentage should be, [it] will only create markets that don't function properly. If you have 51% in California, that means Nevada might go to 40%.

“Ultimately, what has to happen is that all subsidies have to go away and the technologies have to stand on their own and compete against whatever other technology there is, but I don't think continuing to ramp RPS is going to do anything but be more disruptive to the market.”

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