Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Better Deal for Saguache County: Resilient Energy Systems

Having just returned from a marathon session with our Commissioners reviewing Tessera's industrial solar application, the issue of building resilient energy systems seems salient. What we've been saying all along is nicely put in Byron Kennard's (excerpted) article below.

The massive, phased 1,525 to 6,525-acre industrial solar energy plant proposed by Tessera Solar is a continuation of the problematic, old energy model. Big, centralized, vulnerable and extremely destructive of the environment and our rural communities.  The project as currently designed poses too many unmitigatable risks to the health, safety and welfare of our communities (more details on this later). 

We urge the Commissioners to proactively seek a better deal for the citizens of Saguache County. One that's in keeping with the vision of its stakeholders, honors the principles of resiliency and preserves our rural sense of place values.

Let's send Tessera back to the drawing board to develop a proposal for five or six 9 MW distributed projects located on wasteland or brownfields near existing substations but far enough away from communities or residences to avoid a fuss. Get rid of those 8,000 to 35,000 noisy, finicky, untested hydrogen leaking SunCatchers and give us the quiet, low-profile high-concentration photovoltaic (HCPV) panels SES (their parent company supplying the hardward) just signed a contract with Boeing to manufacture.

Several distributed 9 MW solar plants about the size of the SunEdison plant in Mosca would fit very nicely into the "phased in" approach that Tessera suggested in today's meeting.  While we prefer a private/public partnership, if Tessera can meet these simple conditions, they would likely find us on their side.

Bouncing Back From the Disaster in the Gulf
Resiliency is the key to energy security; the key to resiliency is decentralized energy production

The Gulf oil spill is yet another grim reminder that our society's reliance on highly complex and centralized energy systems renders us highly vulnerable. In fact, there seems to be a correlation: the more complex and centralized a system, the more vulnerable it becomes. The Deep Horizon explosion, it appears, was caused by malfunctions in the incredibly complex technology that has been developed to enable us to extract oil from ever deeper and more hazardous locations -- an activity that obviously increases vulnerability.

This vulnerability matters tremendously because so many things can go wrong with such systems: human errors, technical malfunctions, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and so on. And while the probability of any one thing going wrong may be small, the probability that something will is more likely. That means we are bound to take some hits. Shouldn't we seek protection that can minimize these dangers?

This protection can best be found in making our energy systems more resilient.

Resiliency, a concept drawn from ecology, means a lot more than simple survival. Resiliency is the capacity of an ecosystem to absorb disturbance, undergo change, and still retain essentially the same structure and identity. A resilient ecosystem can even rebuild itself when necessary. In nature, for example, forest fires serve to renew the forest's ecology by making room for new growth.

Resiliency has become a major focus of the Department of Homeland Security. In a recent speech, John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism, stated, "Instead of simply building defensive walls, we must bolster our ability at all levels, federal, state, local and the private sector to withstand disruptions, maintain operations and recover quickly."

The key to energy resiliency is decentralization. There's a simple reason for this: the more centralized a system becomes, the bigger target it becomes. In terms of homeland security, it gives the bad guys something to aim at. But what if there is no center, no something to aim at?

This is why we are proponents of distributed generation, systems whereby energy is produced on-site for use on-site. Distributed generation relies on small-scale, micropower devices. When something goes wrong in a distributed generation system, the impact is small scale. No one is going to target the solar shingles on your roof or the small wind turbine on your cornice to take out a community's energy supply. What's more, we know how to fix micropower devices, so even if portions of a decentralized energy system are disabled or destroyed, they can be repaired or rebuilt quickly.

Although the family of renewable energy resources and technologies is very diverse and many can be scaled up in size, a wonderful attribute of small-scale renewable energy technologies is that they literally can be utilized in every part of our country, creating or expanding small businesses, adding considerable economic activity in every region,  encouraging new manufacturing capacity, decreasing reliance on fossil fuels and the harms they present, improving our overall resilience, and thus our overall security.

Carol Werner, Executive Director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, contributed to this post. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a non-profit organization located in Washington , DC, has presented dozens of Capitol Hill briefings on new technologies that can increase the resiliency of the nation's energy systems.