Saturday, May 7, 2011

Bottom-up Solar Power

People in the San Luis Valley have been making electricity from the sun for a long time.

Nearly 50 years ago, a cadre of the nations first solar innovators flocked to the "Valley of the Cool Sun" where they devised a wealth of low-cost solar systems from locally available materials and a surge of youthful invention.

These devices were designed to generate electricity and heat for peoples homes and businesses that were simple to install and would eliminate the need to import dirty energy from far away places.

Energy self-reliance was a clear goal of the early solar engineers in this remote, southern Colorado hide-a-way, and they were remarkably prolific.  By 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.

Needless to say, the solar industry has come a long way since those early days.  But given the San Luis Valley's bottom-up, "small-d" democratic solar legacy, it should be no surprise that the locals are resisting utility plans to monopolize the Valley's sun.

That story has been told before, in this blog and elsewhere, so in keeping with the valley's strong preference for decentralized power, this post is an introduction to the excellent work being done by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), in the spirit of the early SLV solar innovators.

What follows are highlights from "Grassroots Solar", a recent interview with ILSR's senior researcher, John Farrell by Brian Foley, as an introduction to the Institute's good work......

You hear about gigantic solar farms that require vast amounts of land. But what about the decentralized emergence of renewable energy on roof tops? John Farrell took a few minutes to answer questions about grassroots "bottom-up" energy, feed-in tariffs, and solar "community gardens." 

BF: What are the challenges facing bottom-up, "small-d" democratic – as you describe it -- solar power?

JF: Two big challenges: One is that renewable-energy incentives rely largely on the tax code, which means it's complicated to figure out, especially for non-profits and schools. Two, traditionally we're used to big power plants and long-distance transmission lines. The utilities always plan grids in that fashion and they haven't incorporated smaller distributive projects. That's not a technical barrier -- it's really just a matter of changing what people are used to doing.

BF:What about political challenges?

JF: Actually, big, centralized power plants, like these solar plants in the desert, are the ones that have the most political trouble because some are in environmentally sensitive areas. And they require asking people to accept new transmission lines to bring this power into cities, which requires taking land from people.

BF: For bottom-up renewables, advocates point to feed-in tariffs as a market-based solution.

JF: First, the term "feed-in tariff" is the result of letting policy wonks name your policy rather than public relations folks. It's a terrible way to inform people of what it actually means. I'd name it "plug and play" or "anyone can generate" -– that it helps people to generate their own energy.

BF: What makes feed-in tariffs worth while is that you're paid for it.

JF: Exactly. Traditionally, if you generate your own electricity with a solar panel, the utility will reduce your bill. Through a feed-in tariff, the utility is required to buy your electricity over a long-term, 20-year contract for a price that gives you a reasonable return on your investment. Instead of getting 2 percent in savings, the utility is required to give you 6 percent for your investment, for example.

BF: It doesn't seem like utility companies would be too eager to take on something like that.

JF: Actually, some municipal utilities with a broader view of actual costs are offering feed-in tariffs. In Gainesville, Florida for example, they've replaced a solar rebate program with a feed-in tariff because they felt it was better for their balance sheet to give money out over a long period of time rather than all at once with a rebate. And there are quite a few other utilities, like in Ft. Collins, Palo Alto, and others that are considering doing this. The Gainesville model is pretty darn good. They have 20-year contracts and the price they offer I think is around 30 cents per kilowatt-hour.

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Read the interview in its entirety here.

More on the benefits of local ownership and why people are sick and tired of seeing the economic benefits of their local resources (including solar) leave their communities: Ownership (and Money) a Cure for NIMBY

Read John Farrell's Renewable Energy World blog here.