CVIndependent

Fri11222019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to the Mojave Desert this September to announce a multi-agency effort to boost renewable energy development in the desert.

But first, she had to go on a hike.

“We went out into the Big Morongo (Canyon) Preserve,” she told reporters. “Fifteen, 20 minutes from here, there are wetlands. Wetlands, and 254 different bird species. Who knew?”

I remember being amazed, too, on a 2008 visit to that same preserve with a couple of California conservationists. I thought I knew the dry desert, its banded sunsets and varieties of lizards. But Morongo was a wonderland of seeps and birds, where a couple of times we stopped to behold a desert tortoise munching on purple flowers.

It was also a wonderland through which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had hoped to string a transmission corridor. The city planned to call it the Green Path North, as it would haul geothermal energy from the Salton Sea to the transmission hubs that serve Los Angeles.

That transmission line never happened. As with so many renewable-energy projects slated for the Mojave and Colorado deserts of California, Green Path North mostly fell victim to market forces—but not before it sullied the utility’s reputation locally. The proposal had the effect of uniting off-roaders, rock-climbers and conservationists in protest against the careless industrialization of the desert for energy projects—even clean-energy projects.

The new Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a collaboration among federal, state and local governments; the solar industry; Native American tribal leaders; and environmentalists, is an attempt to get ahead of such careless proposals. An analysis of 22.5 million acres of desert land, both public and private, it sets aside habitat for desert species like the tortoise and bighorn sheep. It should guide developers toward land rich with transmission, but absent cultural and natural resources.

Jewell called it a “road map” that can be used for more renewable-energy development around the country. As she stood against a background of windmills just outside of Palm Springs, describing how the Obama administration means to “double down” on public-lands renewable energy development, the 8,000-page document went online.

So far, environmental groups have mostly praised the effort, as have Native American leaders and national park advocates. Kim Delfino, the California program director at Defenders of Wildlife, says she hopes it means that “we can focus on the projects we all can support.” The Sierra Club calls the plan “a promising step” toward protecting “areas with environmental, cultural or scenic value that should be preserved for future generations.”

Energy developers, too, should be happy, as the plan promises to end the uncertainty that has wasted so much of their time and money. Two weeks before the plan’s release, for example, the California Energy Commission had belatedly approved the Palen Solar Power Plant, a collaboration between California-based BrightSource Energy and Spanish developer Abengoa. The commission had rejected the project last December, partially on the grounds that its peculiar technology—fields of mirrors that concentrate sunlight on a 750-foot high tower—would create hazards for birds in the Colorado Desert. A similar BrightSource solar plant on California’s border with Nevada seems to be creating an ecological “megatrap” that kills birds.

But in mid-September, the commission changed course: The project could go ahead, but at only half of its proposed size. Then, on Sept. 26, the developers suddenly withdrew their application. The delay had cost them a federal tax credit and, quite possibly, their power purchase agreement with a major California utility.

The Desert Sun called the cancellation “shocking,” accurately summing up the general reaction to the announcement. But the real shock should not have been that Palen was canceled, but that the project was ever considered an appropriate idea for a place where it could do so much damage.

Will the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which clears the way for 20,000 more megawatts of solar and wind on desert lands by 2040, prevent more ill-planned projects that stutter and fail? Everyone I talked to who’d come to hear Secretary Jewell speak said they were optimistic.

But a conservation plan is only as good as the people who make it happen on the ground. It’s worth remembering the lesson of the Green Path North: No energy project can be green without the support of the people who will have to live alongside it. And environmental ideals mean little if they aren’t backed up by genuine care for the local landscape.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared. She is a contributing editor for the magazine.

Published in Community Voices

The Palm Springs Unified School District is expected to save more than $6.9 million in energy costs over the next two decades after the installation of solar systems at campuses across the district.

Among the 11 sites, including the district’s service center, is Cathedral City High School, where district officials are planning to hold a “flip the switch” event on Monday, Oct. 28.

Some of the solar systems are already in place, and the rest are expected to be installed by the end of the year, according to information distributed on a district PowerPoint presentation. The district includes schools in Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and Thousand Palms.

With five different rate tiers between May and October, calculating the district’s power rate is complex, said Julie Arthur, executive director of facilities and planning for the district. However, the district has projected a savings of $6,949,731 over the next 20 years.

That figure assumes a roughly 2 percent annual increase in energy costs. Arthur said the true savings could be as much as $25 million, or even more, because the district has historically seen 3.75 percent increases, Arthur said.

“Just this summer, Southern California Edison had a 5 percent rate increase, so we’ve already saved 5 percent,” Arthur said.

(In an annoying bit of bureaucratic nonsense, Robert Villegas, a Southern California Edison spokesman, referred questions about rate increases over the years to the California Public Utilities Commission. When asked for that information, California Public Utilities Commission information officer Christopher Chow referred us back to Southern California Edison.)

Arthur said the district had explored wind energy as well, but opted for a solar solution with SunEdison, which assumed the installation and equipment costs. The district is only required to pay for the state inspections. Arthur did not know the precise cost, but estimated it would be roughly “a couple thousand” per site.

Because the solar panels will continue to generate power during the summer months when school is out, yet area energy consumption is at its peak, school and company officials called the partnership “a win-win.”

The school board approved a 20-year energy-service contract with SunEdison. It effectively locks Palm Springs Unified in to the 2012 rates the district paid to Southern California Edison.

“Wouldn’t you love to pay the same amount for your gallon of gasoline for the next 20 years?” Arthur said.

Formed in 2003, SunEdison focuses on making and installing solar systems for schools, prisons, commercial buildings and utilities.

“I’d love to have solar panels at every school,” Arthur said. “We just don’t have the parking lots to make it an option.” She said the district is also looking to add two additional school sites: Raymond Cree and Nellie Coffman middle schools.

Palm Springs Unified is one of three school districts statewide with SunEdison contracts.

“It seems to be mostly Southern California schools that are showing interest at this point,” said Dawn Brister, a SunEdison spokeswoman. “Palm Springs is an early adopter for solar. They really are ahead of the game.”

The district’s move to solar was part of its 2010 energy master plan, said Shari Stewart, Palm Springs Unified’s school board president.

“One of our main objectives is to go as green as possible, if we (can) save money,” Stewart said.

As for other valley school districts: Desert Sands Unified, which includes schools in Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Coachella, La Quinta and Indio, is “researching potential projects but (has) nothing in the works at this time,” said Cynthia McDaniel, assistant superintendent of business services.

It is unclear whether Coachella Valley Unified has or is exploring solar power. Anita Meraz, a spokeswoman for the district with schools in Indio, Coachella, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City, did not return multiple emails or calls to her office and cell phone.

“I’m happy we’re one of the first,” said Stewart, of Palm Springs Unified. “We’re going to be saving a tremendous amount of money over the long haul.”

Published in Local Issues

This week on an explosive Independent comics page: Red Meat throws dynamite off a ferry; The City reminds us what's important regarding Chelsea Manning's conviction; The K Chronicles has wishes for a child's first day at school; and Jen Sorenson examines Obama's true record on energy.

Published in Comics

For more than a century, monopoly electric utilities have nurtured the West. They fed the mines and the mills, and now deliver the juice to our thirsty digital devices and air conditioners.

Now, it appears as if the offspring is offing its mother, as rooftop solar slowly strangles utilities.

While the green media has gleefully spread word of this apparent matricide, it was first spawned by a report right out of the utility industry itself, and then bolstered by a prominent utility executive, lending it credence. The concern from the industry is fairly straightforward: If customers produce their own energy, they won’t need to buy it from the utility, and revenues will drop. And if those consumers produce more energy than they use, they become competitors, lower the price of electricity and take another bite out of the utilities’ bottom line—until we just don’t need the utilities anymore at all.

The idea of this sort of rooftop revolution is as rousing and lovely as that of wiping out our industrialized food system, with backyard and rooftop gardens. But it’s also nearly as implausible for two reasons: scale and dependency.

If any utility should be under threat from rooftop solar, it would be the Phoenix area’s Arizona Public Service. The state is one of the best places in the world to generate solar power, and it has a strong net metering program that allows homes with distributed generation to recoup their costs and then some. APS boasts that 24,000 of its customers have taken advantage of the sun and the incentives. While that’s a hefty number, it represents only about 2 percent of the utility’s more than 1 million customers. That may put a tiny dent in APS’ $600 million-plus yearly profit, but it’s a long way from being an existential threat. Even the 150,000 solar rooftops here in California, with a max capacity of less than half of what the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station kicks out at any given moment, is a mere drop in the total energy bucket.

With the cost of solar panels continuing to drop, it is conceivable that 2 percent could become 20 percent. But that still won’t necessarily be the death knell for utilities, because distributed generation as we know it now is still desperately dependent on the grid, and the utilities that run and operate it. David Roberts, over at Grist, recently noted that “a home creating its own power basically unplugs itself from the grid. … The electricity that’s generated onsite on a solar home is used by that home or its immediate neighbors. It barely touches the utility’s transmission and distribution system.”

While Roberts’ explainer on this issue is otherwise excellent, this passage doesn’t quite cut it. Even figuratively, one could say that a home “unplugs” only during those very rare moments when it produces exactly as much power as it uses. That might happen for a few minutes during the day. For the remaining 86,000 seconds in the day, rooftop solar is very plugged in.

Solar generation typically reaches its peak around 1 p.m., right at a time when residential power use is relatively low, because air conditioners have yet to crank up too much, and the residents are at work. Power flows from house to grid, where it adds to the current that is flowing towards the “load,” or places that need it. That might be a neighbor, unless her house’s panels are also generating surplus power, in which case it could be the Walmart down the street or the factory in a neighboring town. Residential power use then swings upward as the afternoon progresses, peaking around 5 p.m., as folks get home from work, and air conditioners rev up. By this time, solar power is on the downswing, so the typical residence will use more power than rooftop solar generates. It’s payback time, when residences that generated all that surplus power in the middle of the day get it “back” from the grid (though now the juice is most likely coming from natural gas, hydropower, coal or nuclear plants). In essence, a transaction is taking place that allows the rooftop solar home to treat the grid like a big battery, storing up excess power and then releasing it when needed.

This transaction is critical for rooftop solar to make any sense (unless one is inclined to attune one’s energy use precisely to the cycle of the sun, or to put in a big enough battery bank to back up all that solar on site, but more on that later). But the transaction can’t take place without the grid. And in most parts of the West—California being the exception—the grid is run by monopoly utilities, and they’re the ones firing up the so-called peaking generators necessary to keep the power on when the sun dims and demand is at its highest. Indeed, the cost of building and running those “peakers”—which in many cases are essentially power-generating, natural gas-guzzling jet engines—are the big threat to utilities. Yet they become more and more necessary as more solar—be it rooftop or utility-scale—is put into the grid.

There are ways around this quandary. The obvious one is for all those folks with distributed generation to battery-up and literally unplug from the grid. The other is to broaden the push for distributed generation beyond rooftop solar, to small-scale hydro-power, geothermal, wind and even small natural-gas plants, so that the collective input from distributed generation can meet demand at all times of the day so as to ease the dependence on the utilities (though not necessarily the dependence on the grid … decoupling from the grid will be a lot harder than cutting the utilities loose, for a number of reasons.)

In the meantime, the utilities might want to consider the recent warnings as a wake-up call. Rather than go to battle with distributed generation—by trying to kill incentives or cut down net metering programs—they’d do well to adapt to it, even embrace it. This won’t be easy. It's a hugely complex issue, but it may be the only way out. Rooftop solar can be the utilities’ killer, or savior, depending on how the utilities handle things.

Cross-posted from High Country News. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Community Voices