In May, 62 wind turbines started sending electricity from southern Washington state to the Turlock Irrigation District.
Next year, a nearby wind project in northern Oregon will start supplying the Modesto Irrigation District.
The agencies have taken big strides when it comes to renewable power, but the recent projects raise a question for them and other utilities: Why not produce the energy in California, which has plenty of renewable sources and could use the jobs that the projects would create?
Outsourcing renewable power irks some activists. "It totally takes the focus off building our green-tech economy," said Laura Wisland, a clean energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley.
Utility representatives say they pursue out-of-state projects if they can provide reliable power at an affordable cost to ratepayers. California has many projects of its own, they say, and could have even more in the future as renewables become a major part of the energy mix.
"We are aggressively pursuing some other in-state renewable energy projects," MID spokeswoman Kate Hora said. "They are just not at the stage where we can announce them."
Utilities are under a state mandate to boost their renewable share to 20 percent, a threshold that could rise to 33 percent in the near future. The goal is to reduce the use of fossil fuels, believed to be causing climate change.
The TID's project in Washington, its first major use of wind, shot the district's renewable share to 28 percent.
The MID stands at 12 percent, most of it from Solano County wind projects, some of it from wind turbines in Washington. The share will rise to 16 percent with the Oregon project.
Both districts get minor amounts of renewable power from other sources, including solar and small hydroelectric systems. Large hydro, including Don Pedro Reservoir, does not count toward the goal.
Power line flap tripped up in-state projects
The MID and a few other utilities had looked to a California source, Lassen County, for future wind, solar and geothermal power. These plans have faded for now because of last month's cancellation of controversial transmission lines for the energy.
Earlier this month, the MID board heard pleas from several business people for solar projects not just within California, but within the district. Board members said these projects, including panels on the roofs of energy-hungry supermarkets, would help meet the renewable target and boost the economy.
"We just see a huge potential amount of roof area that isn't being utilized," said Randy Jensen, information technology manager at Panelized Structures Inc. His Modesto-based company makes roofs for large buildings and has added solar installation to its services.
Next month, the board will resume a debate on how much the MID should pay for solar power, which tends to cost more than wind and conventional sources.
MID's Hora said rooftop solar benefits the building owner, who gets savings on power bills along with incentives funded by all ratepayers.
She said the district is seeking "utility-size" renewable projects that provide electricity for everyone.
California utilities have long relied in part on out-of-state sources of conventional power. For example, MID taps a coal-fueled plant in New Mexico. Advocates of renewable energy see it as a way not just to get beyond fossil fuels, but also to redirect investment to California.
Utility managers agree with that goal but also see a need for shopping around the West.
"We're not saying renewables won't get developed in California, we just need the flexibility" to look for power out of state as well, said Jim Shetler, assistant general manager for energy supply at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
Labor and environmental groups accept the need for some of the power to come from out of state, but they're pushing for legislation that encourages production capacity to be built in California.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s interest in someday buying huge amounts of hydropower from British Columbia, in particular, is drawing fire from environmentalists.
Out-of-state renewables a cheaper way to go
A June report from the California Public Utilities Commission estimates the infrastructure costs to meet the 33 percent goal at $115 billion. The report supports the utilities' argument that more out-of-state power would reduce costs, though the difference per kilowatt-hour is relatively small.
Even without the 33 percent mandate, average costs for power would be expected to rise nearly 20 percent, to 15.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, by 2020.
Getting to 33 percent renewable power on the state's current path, with a big focus on rapid expansion of desert-based solar power,would bump up costs an additional 7 percent, or 1.1 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Using more out-of-state power might cut that premium to 0.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, while building more small-scale projects that don't need long-distance transmission might increase it to 2.3 cents, the PUC estimated.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.