Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bill Powers on Distributed Generation

We invited Bill Powers to the San Luis Valley earlier this year to serve as keynote speaker for the 2nd Annual Renewable Energy Forum cosponsored by Adams State College in March 2010.  The focus of the symposium was on distributed renewable energy generation (DG) in the San Luis Valley.  The event generated a new appreciation for our diverse renewable energy resources and identified key obstacles to local development.  Read more about the symposium here.

Bill continues to serve as Adviser to SLVRCA and we hope to involve him in the development of a Renewable Energy Initiative for the San Luis Valley and (indirectly) Colorado.   Bill Powers, myself and several other biologists and solar energy activists from California, Nevada and Washington State recently founded Solar Done Right to educate and advocate for distributed renewable energy generation on the State and Federal level.

Below is an interview with Bill Powers done by Onell R. Soto for the San Diego Union-Tribune on September 4, 2010.  While the places and names are different, the issues facing us here in the San Luis Valley are remarkably similar.

Watching critically every step SDGE takes

When it comes to thinking about what the region’s power infrastructure should look like in the future, an alternative to SDGE’s vision comes from Bill Powers, an electrical engineer who has a very different view of what is needed to keep the lights on here.

Powers, often hired by community groups and governments and companies to provide expert testimony on power issues, says that SDGE’s focus on new power lines is wrongheaded, and its strategy of getting solar and wind power from far away is destructive.

He opposed the $1.9 billion Sunrise Powerlink line as unneeded and too expensive, and calls the decision approving it “a period piece.”

Central to Powers’ vision is that San Diego can produce the renewable power it needs here, negating the need both for big transmission and big desert solar farms. It’s a concept called distributed generation.

SDGE executives say it’s not an either-or question if it is to reach its stated goal of getting one-third of the power it delivers in 2020 from solar, wind and other renewable sources.  It wants local generation, but says power must be imported.

Last week, utility got approval to build and buy 100 megawatts of solar in its territory over the next five years. But it’s going forward with plans to build Sunrise, and sign contracts for power from desert solar farms.

We sat down with Powers to discuss San Diego’s energy future.

Q: Describe distributed generation.

A: Distributed generation essentially means you’re generating power at or near the point where you’re using that power. A great example is the San Diego, or San Diego State University, where they have their own power plant to take care of their need, and ironically enough, these smaller local plants, because they reuse all the heat that’s generated from burning the fuel, not only do they generate electricity, but the heat coming off whatever that generator is, an engine or a gas turbine, that is used to generate hot water or steam.

The utility model is to generate power at very large power plants, often that are remote to the area where the power is used. They generate only electricity. And as a result, even the most efficient, state-of-the-art large power plants aren’t as efficient as these small power plants.

The other aspect is renewable energy distributed generation. The one example that everyone is familiar with is putting a solar panel on your roof. That’s an example of distributing generation among many points. And, supplying the same amount of power, but instead of being one giant power plant in Chula Vista or in Otay Mesa, that same power is provided on 100,000 rooftops feeding into the grid, into the distribution system.

Q:Why is that better? 

One of the unique aspects of photovoltaics is that it is almost infinitely scalable. You can put it on a small rooftop and have it operate efficiently and effectively to provide power, or you can put it on 1,000 acres to provide over 100 megawatts using the same technology. PV is somewhat unique in that you can basically saturate an urban area with solar panels. …

It provides you a unique tool to achieve two objectives, one is reducing your carbon footprint, addressing the climate change, global warming gas issue, and two it solves another problem, which is, if you’re going to cover square miles of the desert with solar power generation, then you’re making a choice that that desert (is better used for power.) many proposed plants are on relatively pristine lands, and you’re making a choice where you’re essentially sacrificing many square miles of desert under the presumption that it’s more cost effective to do it in a large, concentrated way as the utilities have traditionally generated power. 

Q: SDGE says it’s cheaper to use big solar power plants in the desert than rooftops in San Diego. The sun is better out there. They can use cheap technology and assembly-line methods to build them. And rooftop is the most expensive power available. That true? 

A: False, but in a subtle way. ... Let’s say I built a 100 megawatt photovoltaic power plant in Blythe, in a hot desert. The same 100 megawatts in 1,000 commercial rooftops in San Diego … you would pay a bit more. However if you’re building that array out in the desert, you need to transmit it in. You need transmission to do that.

One of my main arguments against doing it in the desert is that the utilities, like SDGE make their best rate of return on new transmission lines, like the Sunrise Powerlink that’s been so controversial here. So a utility is almost reflexively saying we must put it out remotely in order to get the most cost-effective power. But if you add the cost of putting in that transmission line you’ve completely negated the economic benefit.

And, addressing another point, yes, the solar intensity in Blythe is 10 to 15 percent better than it would be on average in coastal San Diego, but the amount of losses that transmission line will incur — especially on a hot summer day when you’re trying to deal with your peak loads — is also in the 10 to 15 percent range. 

Q: A few years ago, you did a study of where San Diego would be in 2020. What was your conclusion? 

A: My conclusion was that we could go far beyond the renewable energy target that was proposed and is still being talked about — 33 percent by 2020 — in San Diego at much lower cost if we focused on doing local power, both solar power and these combined heat and power projects (like at) University of San Diego and San Diego State University.

Q:What’s changed since you did that study? 

A: What’s changed is a dramatic drop in the cost of photovoltaics and no concomitant drop in the generation from natural gas-fired power plants, other than we have seen some drop in the cost of natural gas, which tends to bounce around over time. But there has been a precipitous drop in the cost of photovoltaics over the last three years and a projection at this point by California Energy Commission and the Department of Energy that photovoltaics will drop in half in cost over the next 10 years and it’s the next 10 years that are the focus of California. 

Also in the news:
Bill Powers Keynote presentation, SLV Energy Symposium, March 6, 2010, Adams State College.  YouTube/3 parts.  An overview of distributed generation, transmission and what we can learn from California's experience.
Smart Energy Solutions Campaign - a plan developed by Bill Powers for reducing San Diego County's emissions 80% by 2020.
Apr 2011 -  NPR interview with Solar Done Right and Bill Powers