Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Solar Power in California: Large or Small?

By Nick Lawton, Staff Attorney

As California ponders an increase to its Renewable Portfolio Standard, which would require the state’s utilities to obtain 50% renewable energy by 2050, a set of important questions revolves around the size and siting of solar power. Some believe that the proper solution involves large-scale solar arrays in the desert, such as Abengoa’s Mojave Solar Project or the Ivanpah Solar Array. In contrast, others argue that the state should favor a distributed power system, with rooftop arrays and energy storage systems satisfying on-site energy demand.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which has been in the works for five years, generally embraces large-scale development. The Plan is a 10,000-page draft document that sets out a “landscape-scale renewable energy and conservation” plan for more than 22 million acres of desert in seven California counties. The Plan attempts to balance development of 20,000 megawatts of new renewable energy with conservation goals for desert landscapes and species. The Plan aims to concentrate projects in “Development Focus Areas” with strong renewable resources, access to transmission, and where developers can effectively mitigate environmental impacts.

The Plan’s public comment period closed on February 23, 2015. The four agencies responsible for the Plan (the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of the Interior) received over 12,000 comments. Prominent commenters include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and five of the seven counties in which the Plan would operate.

The counties are concerned that the Plan would have disparate impacts on different counties, excessively burden private land, and could close off private land to other lucrative uses such as agriculture or mining. Particularly, some counties worry about being burdened with costly environmental mitigation projects without necessarily enjoying economic benefits from local projects. Additionally, some counties noted that the Plan’s Preferred Alternative would designate roughly three times as much private land as public land for development, while setting aside roughly 1.7 million acres of private land for conservation projects. Inyo County is only 2% private land, and San Bernardino County is only 25% private land. These counties thus worry that closing private land for conservation or slating it for exclusive use by renewable energy development could harm local economies. As a result, several counties are threatening to withdraw their support for the Plan.

Meanwhile, EPA has called for a fundamental reconsideration of the Plan’s goals and means. Its comments call into question the need for utility-scale solar development, citing “the sharp decline in the cost of rooftop solar-powered electricity and rapid deployment of energy storage.” As distributed solar becomes more widespread, the need for utility-scale solar power diminishes. This line of argument is popular among environmentalists as well. EPA also expressed concerns about particulate emissions (mostly dust) resulting from disturbance of the desert’s surface, about impacts on ephemeral streams, and on the possible designation of the Silurian Valley (a pristine natural area near Death Valley, where the Bureau of Land Management recently rejected a renewable energy project) as a Development Focus Area.  

The agencies responsible for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan will now have to wade through the more than 12,000 comments on the current draft. Considering that creating the draft took more than five years, it is hard to know when they may issue a final plan. (Their schedule is silent on the issue.)

In the meantime, distributed solar power is continuing a meteoric rise in California. Under the Go Solar California initiative, which is a set of state incentives for solar power, homes and businesses have installed nearly 1,900 MW of solar power. To put that in perspective, the utility-scale Mojave Solar Project has a capacity of 280 MW, while the Ivanpah Solar array (the largest solar thermal plant in the world) has a capacity of 392 MW. This comparison suggests that it is quite possible for distributed solar power to generate enough energy to offset the need for larger, utility-scale projects.

Using distributed solar power to reduce the need for large-scale projects is a good idea. Distributed generation offers a whole suite of benefits that allow utilities—and thus ratepayers—to avoid many types of costs (including transmission costs, distribution costs, and environmental compliance costs, to name a few). But more fundamentally, distributed generation offers a unique opportunity to preserve the natural environment by improving the built environment. As California ponders how (and whether) to reach 50% renewable energy by 2050, it should emphasize distributed solar power.

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