Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Power of Distributed Generation

By June Savage
Guest contributing co-author

Over 90 people attended the energy symposium on Saturday, March 6th at Adams State College in Alamosa. Keynote Speaker, Bill Powers, mechanical engineer and expert on regional power systems, addressed the potential for community-based renewable energy development in the San Luis Valley. Mr. Powers authored the Smart Energy 2020 Plan to reduce Green House Gas emissions 50% by 2020 in San Diego County and has served as an expert witness on several groundbreaking California Energy Commission transmission line decisions.

Much of the interest in small, dispersed electricity generation (called distributed generation or “DG”) here in the SLV is in its ability to offset "peak load" that occurs at the time of day and season when electrical demand is the greatest - and most expensive. In the San Luis Valley, peak demand occurs in the summer, at night, when farmers irrigate their crops. This situation has spurred interest in developing diverse renewable energy sources that could be fed into the grid during the day and be pulled out at night using new storage technologies. Ensuring reliable electricity for valley farmers is ostensibly the reason for a new $200 million plus transmission line - a big money maker for utility companies and a contentious issue for affected valley communities.

The symposium provided ample opportunity for dialogue between Powers, the panelists and attendees.  Much of the discussion centered on the superior solar generating potential of the San Luis Valley that will continue to be seen as an export commodity by industry despite the high cost of new powerlines and 5-17% transmission losses. Powers presented convincing evidence that with a well-designed feed-in tariff and other incentives; Colorado could meet its new Renewable Energy Standard of 33% by 2020 through point of use distributed energy generation mostly in urban areas.

Power's was impressed with the San Luis Valley's solar energy progress so far.   "The existing 8.2 MW SunEdison PV plant and planned expansions could meet almost 100% of the Valley's daytime energy use from locally generated solar electricity", said Powers.   The idea was discussed that if valley farmers installed PV systems on their center pivot corners they could generate up to 1,500 MW of locally owned, community-based solar energy.  Combined with efficiency, upgrades and some storage capacity, "the SLV could be a model for rural energy independence and self-sufficiency" Powers concluded.   Local generation would eliminate the need for a costly new transmission line that is certain to be paid for by local farmers and ratepayers. (See what is happening in Wyoming).

Panelists included Jim Clare with the Resource Conservation and Development Group who discussed the joint hydroelectric power project with RCDG, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the Governor’s Energy Office. San Juan Ranch owner, George Whitten, Jr., addressed some problems with scale and siting of industrial solar facilities and cautioned listeners to consider the effects on the whole system before making decisions.   Panelist Michael Wisdom with SLV Development Resources Group is overseeing a feasibility study to develop 200 MW of solar generation under a SLV Energy Authority that is expected to be complete in April.  John Tembrock with the SLV Solar Working Group is studying the many facts and implications for solar development in the SLV.  Founder of the SLV Renewable Communities Alliance, Ceal Smith encouraged participants to work collaboratively to address concerns and alternatives to the 5,500 MW of industrial solar development that the SLV has been earmarked for (download recent PUC staff testimony here).

There was broad agreement among participants that the San Luis Valley and surrounding communities need a plan to deal with the overwhelming pressure for industrial solar development.  

Saguache County Commissioner, Mike Spearman and Charlotte Bobicki, the San Luis Valley representative for Senator Michael Bennett, were among the San Luis Valley and La Veta residents in attendance.

The symposium was sponsored by the SLV Renewable Communities Alliance, Adams State College – Community Partnerships and the San Luis Valley Solar Working Group.

NEW - Nov. 2010! ALSO SEE: Community Power:  Decentralized Renewable Energy in California - the most comprehensive report yet on why DG is the cheaper, faster, smarter and cleaner path to a renewable energy future.