Saturday, June 5, 2010

4 Myths on Solar Energy and the San Luis Valley

The San Luis Valley has been much in the news lately, with some leading stories coming from The New York Times, Going Solar Is Harder Than It Looks, a Valley Finds and the Denver Post, Xcel seeks eased solar requirement amid dispute over transmission.

Although there are signs that other perspectives and voices are seeping into the media (the Pueblo Chieftain: Xcel to cut solar project by half and the Valley Courier: Xcel Energy files to reduce Colorado's solar projects are welcome exceptions), for the most part the story goes like this....

1) In Colorado, the sun only shines in the San Luis Valley;

2) Solar energy resources can't be developed in Colorado without a new high-voltage transmission line into the San Luis Valley;

3) The SoCo line is being challenged solely by Louis Bacon, the billionaire owner of Trinchera Ranch, who doesn't want his private property spoiled by an ugly and destructive transmission line;

4) A new transmission line is critical for the Valley's energy security and future economic growth.

Truth or myth?

MYTH #1: In Colorado, the Sun Only Shines in the San Luis Valley. The NREL Concentrating Solar Power map on the right is frequently referred to by industry, utilities and government.  This map implies that the SLV has wildly superior solar insolation values, so much so that generating solar energy from any place else in the state isn't even worth considering.

The map below is a more realistic view of Colorado's solar insolation values relative to other states.  The difference between solar generation values in the SLV and, say, Denver is far less dramatic, at ~ 10-15%.  What neither map shows, is that the marginal advantage of generating solar energy in the San Luis Valley is effectively canceled out by the estimated 7.5-12% line losses incurred from transporting electricity over long distances.

Transmission upgrades are needed to carry large amounts of solar generated electricity from remote areas like the San Luis Valley that currently lack large export transmission capacity.  According to Pacific Gas and Electric Company (Ng, 2009) the average cost of constructing new transmission lines is $1.5M/per mile.

When line losses and the cost of long-distance transmission are factored in, point of use generation is clearly the more economical choice for Coloradans.  

Urban areas offer a vast landscape for solar generation.  A recent Navigant study found over 35,000-acres of suitable residential and commercial rooftop in Colorado's urban areas.  This does not include the tens of thousands (or more!) more acres of parking lots, road corridors, brownfields and urban "sol-estate" now baking in the sun.

Al Weinrub, Community Power





In a recent article, entitled "Busting 4 Myths About Solar PV vs Concentrating Solar Power", John Farrell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, lays to rest the question of which is cheaper (see chart below).  Production costs for solar PV have fallen dramatically in the past two years.  When transmission costs and inefficiencies are factored in, there is no question that rooftop PV is the most economical solar alternative (also see Table 7 from Al Weinrubs report, Community Power, upper right).

John Ferrell, Busting 4 Myths About Solar PV vs CSP, 2011
Some will still argue that distributed generation can't scale up fast enough. Germany generates more than half of the worlds solar energy despite its relatively low solar insolation values (see purple inset in above map).  The high latitude county, not much bigger than Colorado, added over 8 Gigawatts of solar in 2010 alone compared to less than 1 Gigawatt of installed solar in the entire US in the same timeframe. 

Germany, and a growing number of counties with Feed-in tariffs, have proven, beyond a shadow of doubt, that distributed solar can scale up rapidly and create more quality, green jobs without the added cost of new transmission.

The beauty of solar is its ubiquity.  All of Colorado is blessed with an average of 5.5 hours of solar energy, on average, 300 days a year.  Why are we not developing our solar resources as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible? 


Conclusion:  All of Colorado has excellent solar resources.  While transmission costs and losses cancel out any advantage of generating solar energy in the San Luis Valley, perverse policy incentives continue to direct industry and utilities toward costly, destructive and unpopular remote centralized solar.  

MYTH #2: Solar energy resources cannot be developed in Colorado without a new high-voltage transmission line.   This is a myth that has been widely perpetuated by the utility industry and reinforced by Xcels' recent decision to reduce the solar energy component of its 2007 Resource Plan.  The implication is that opposition to the SoCo transmission line is blocking Xcel's ability to develop solar resources as "mandated by the people of Colorado". 

Xcel's own study suggests that renewable energy resources are integrated more effectively when distributed geographically and that Pueblo and Denver both possess good solar resources.  Could it be that Xcel wants the new transmission line more than it wants solar energy for its RES portfolio? (If you can't access this pdf, email info@slvrenewable communities.org to request a copy of the report).

Recent legislation that guarantees 100% upfront cost recovery and a new report by transmission expert J. Firooze, Transmission in Short Supply or Do IOU's Want More Profits? suggests that the Big Solar - Transmission Mission is founded more on badly designed policy incentives than any real transmission shortage or solar insolation advantage.

Firooze concludes that we are "wasting millions of dollars on transmission, consumer monies that would be more productively spent on developing and connecting the renewable resources themselves".

Net-metering, Feed-in Tariffs (FIT) and PACE financing are proven policy incentives that would effectively fast-track point of use solar energy development in every corner of our sunny state using the existing transmission infrastructure. 

According to PUC testimony, an upgrade of the existing 3 transmission lines, would allow the San Luis Valley to export up to 500 MW - ample room for a robust commercial export market that wouldn't turn the valley into an industrial solar sacrifice zone.

Colorado’s new Renewable Energy Standard very wisely includes a 3% cutout for distributed solar generation.   It's a good start that will help prove the effectiveness of DG while providing a much needed shot in the arm for our ailing jobs economy.

Because utilities are generally opposed to policies that level the playing field - the public will need to take the lead in demanding policy incentives for renewable energy generation across residential, commercial, community and agricultural sectors.

Conclusion: With the right policy incentives, Colorado can develop its considerable solar energy potential without costly new transmission and turning the San Luis Valley into a solar energy sacrifice zone. An additional perk is that local solar energy generation creates more jobs and puts more dollars on Main Street.  See COMMUNITY POWER, the landmark new report by the Clean Energy Alliance.

MYTH #3: Trinchera Ranch is alone in questioning the need for the SoCo transmission line into the San Luis Valley.

While media has mostly focus on the opposition of Louis Bacon and Trinchera Ranch to the SoCo transmission line, the reality is that growing numbers of citizens throughout Colorado oppose a costly and unnecessary line through one of Colorado's remaining wild and open spaces. 

News reports and editorials, standing room only meetings, a constant stream of letters and comments opposing the SoCo transmission line and solar industrialization in the San Luis Valley indicate broad and growing concern from a diversity of concerned stakeholders and communities.  SLVRCA was founded in 2009 for the purpose of developing alternatives to solar industrialization that honor the Valley's history, landscapes and rural, sense of place values.  In little over a year, thousands have joined our growing network.

Until recently, local opposition has been largely ignored by the media. The first solar symposium held in Hospice del Valle, Alamosa in early 2009 drew a diverse, standing room only crowd that included many of the Valley's farmers and ranchers - yet it was not reported in the media.  Half a dozen Energy Town Hall meetings held by Senator Gail Schwartz the following spring also drew strong interest from citizens around the Valley.    

Tessera Solar 1041 application: over 866 comments from 102 individuals were received in the first few months leading up to the preliminary application (see comments here).  Two public hearings held at the Saguache County courthouse were filled to standing-room only. All but a few people testified against the massive industrial project.   In a few short weeks in 2010, over 500 residents of Saguache County signed a petition urging the County Commissioners to deny approval of Tessera's poorly conceived industrial power plant.

SoCo Transmission line - PUC proceedings: 400 individuals, 12 businesses and 9 organizations filed comments in the first 30-days of TriState's public scoping.  In a surprise brief reopening for public comments in July, 168 comments were filed in less than 36 hours, with 95% opposed to the new line (see comments here).

Rural Utility Service: over 500 comment letters were received by the RUS during the August 2009 public scoping period (see comments here).  RUS is expected to hold a new scoping period this summer to allow public input from parties who did not get their concerns filed two years ago.

In 2010,  Solar Done Right, a regional coalition of public land activists, solar power and electrical engineering experts and biologists has emerged out of concern for the rush to develop our nations few remaining wildlands for industrial solar energy.  SDR has come together to urge government, utilities, the mainstream environmental movement and the public to abandon this destructive path, and to work toward generating the power we need in the built environment.'

Furthermore, people from all walks of life in communities around Colorado, and the nation, are beginning to understand the reduced cost and increased economic benefits of local clean energy. 

Conclusion: a growing number of diverse San Luis Valley stakeholders are concerned and question the need for the SoCo transmission line or the massive solar industrialization of the San Luis Valley that it would usher in - yet the media has barely caught on to this rising grassroots phenomenon.  

MYTH #4: San Luis Valley farmers and residents are at risk - a new transmission line is critical for the Valley's energy security and future economic growth.

The San Luis Valley has a long history of self-reliance and renewable energy innovation.  In the early 1980's the Solar Energy Research Institute  -- now the nations premier think tank, the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo. -- credited the San Luis Valley with "inspiring an explosion in solar energy resulting in perhaps the highest per capita concentration of solar installations in the country." Once current contracts are complete, the SLV will generate almost 90 MW (well over 100% of its daytime electricity needs) of local distributed solar energy generation.

With a diversity of renewable energy resources at our disposal (solar, microhydro, geothermal, biofuels as well as storage), the Valley is perfectly situated to become the nations first grid-supported microgrid, or more accurately a system of self-sufficient energy "islands" tied together (and to the outside world) through the existing transmission infrastructure.

Developing diverse energy resources, first for local use, then as a new income stream for farmers and ranchers, is more in keeping with decentralized energy technology and market trends.

Localized energy can be integrated into the cultural and historical fabric of the San Luis Valley, rather than bulldozing the rural sense of place that draws, and keeps people coming back, to this unique place.

One idea gaining popularity among valley farmers is to install solar PV on the more than 120,000-acres of crop circle corners.  Numerous installations could offset irrigation energy loads and provide an income stream to hundreds of farmers during the off season.  The Valley's centennial ranch community is gaining an interest in installing smaller scale (< 5MW) distributed solar and microhydro installations on their less productive rangelands and irrigation canals. 

Unfortunately,  Xcel Energy imposed hefty penalties on SLV farmers who participated in a solar PV pilot project.  Until policy barriers are overcome, progress with local generation will be an uphill climb.    Nevertheless, numerous efforts are underway.  Interest in developing a collaborative vision and road map for community power is growing and could coalesce in the very near future.

5 comments:

Annie Khan said...


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WWICS Review said...

The solar power is the perfect solution for the future.The use of solar power can control the level of pollution, as the process of generating electricity from sunlight cause no pollutants. The solar power is the safest and cleanest energy and helps us sustain the environment.

Pet Shop in Panchkula said...

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