Thursday, March 17, 2011

Amendment 37 retrospective

Colorado's rural San Luis Valley has become the epicenter of a growing debate over the state's renewable energy future.  Much has been written about billionaire Louis Bacon's opposition to Xcel Energy's high-voltage transmission line proposal, intended to siphon gigawatts of solar energy out of the San Luis Valley to the state's "urban demand centers".

But little has been said of the growing numbers of San Luis Valley locals who are self described, Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) supporters of distributed renewable energy generation in their back yards, their neighbors back yards and crop circle corners and every other suitable location in the vast human-altered environment. 

Coloradans came together in 2004 to pass Amendment 37, the nations first voter-approved Renewable Energy Standard (RES).   Since then, the legislature has twice amended the RES.  First to allow utilities to increase ratepayer costs to 2% annually, (from the original $.50/mo., but see below), and then to raise the RES to 30% by 2020.

The original intent of the Renewable Energy Standard was, "to save consumers and businesses money, attract new business and jobs, promote development of rural economies, minimize water use for electricity generation, diversify Colorado's energy resources, reduce the impact of volatile fuel prices, and improve the natural environment of the state".  

In the 6 years since its adoption, has the RES voter mandate been fulfilled so far?

In its interactive website, Who's Got the Power?, the Union of Concerned Scientists concludes that, "Unfortunately, we're letting utilities decide for us where our money should be spent - and they're not making smart or clean decisions". "They're sending our money out of state, buying dirty coal, and shipping off our clean energy resources overseas."

There is also evidence that utilities are using the RES to grow a bigger energy pie (click on "SLV Dog and Pony") and to justify lucrative but unnecessary new transmission. Because the RES has no replacement requirement, utility companies view renewable energy as an add-on that allows them to expand combined fossil and renewable energy markets.

Contrary to what Amendment 37 voters called for, the cost of energy in Colorado has also increased steadily, and at a much faster rate than the national average. According to the Denver Post, the bulk of this increase can be attributed directly to
the $1.4 billion Comanche 3 coal-fired power plant outside Pueblo.  But as Xcel Energy CEO Kelly warns, ratepayers should expect future rate increases to pay for new renewable energy infrastructure.

Recent testimony by
Richard Mignogna, the Public Utility Commission renewable energy expert, reveals that Xcel Energy is abusing the RES to reap profits from rate payers well beyond the 2% allowable cap.  According to Mignogna, "The Company has far exceeded its available budget under the RESA and is projected to end 2011 with a deficit of approximately $97 million. While PSCo typically argues that it is only charging customers the two percent allowed by the statute, that argument is disingenuous. As we now know, the Company has been loaning money to the RESA, earning its rate of return on the funds advanced, so that it can acquire more RECs than it needs only to sell them into California so that it can then claim a percentage of those proceeds" [emphasis added].

Furthermore, Xcel is pushing massive central-station solar power plants that will provide relatively little benefit to rural communities when compared to small to medium scale, locally-owned distributed generation.  People in the San Luis Valley largely expect absentee-owned centralized power stations to destroy the environment and siphon profits out of their rural communities.   

But the RES seems poorly designed to promote locally-owned renewable energy development, especially in rural communities that lack investment capital.

These trends point to some serious failings of the Renewable Energy Standard.  Rather than reducing costs, the RES is costing Coloradans more while fueling more dirty energy use, not less.  If implemented, impacts from new transmission and massive industrial solar development are likely to ruin, rather than "improve the natural environment of the state", as intended.

At the same time Xcel and other utility companies have drastically reduced funding for local solar generation, the primary source of green jobs, that threatens to bring Colorado's burgeoning renewable energy economy crashing down.

As I've written elsewhere, the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) (or Clean Local Energy Accessible Now or CLEAN contract), is the primary policy tool used around the world for spurring rapid renewable energy development cost-effectively, while creating a stable green jobs economy that benefits a broad cross section of the economy including rural communities.

The key has been the adoption of policies that
guarantee access and investment security to ALL renewable energy investors, big and small.   Opening renewable energy market to millions of interested residential and small business investors will result in more, across the board economic benefits, less environmental impacts and a more democratic energy sector.

In just a few short years, Germany installed more than half the world's solar generation (8 GW in 2010 alone) from hundreds of thousands of small, distributed solar PV systems and created tens of thousands of quality green jobs in the process.

Ontario, Canada launched North America's first FiT in 2009 and has now set the stage for closing all its coal-fired power plants by 2014. Not only that, but its domestic content requirement is expected to generate 43,000 new jobs and dozens of new manufacturing plants to support the 5,000 MW of new clean energy.  If adopted, California's new FiT is expected to generate $2 billion in additional tax revenue and $50 billion in new investment, while adding an average of 50,000 new jobs a year for a decade.

The FiT/CLEAN originated in the US during the first energy crisis of the 1970's.  But following consolidation of the utility industry in the 1990's, the US is now one of the few developed nations of the world that doesn't have one.  

In Colorado, passage of the Community Solar Gardens Act in 2010 was hailed as a great victory for community power advocates.   Even so, Solar Gardens are only allowed to generate 20% over the average subscribers energy use and a cumulative total of 6 MW in the first two years.  Whether Solar Gardens will be allowed to proliferate beyond this small scale, remains to be seen.   

Efforts to develop local clean energy in the rural San Luis Valley have consistently run into barriers from Xcel Energy. Despite the uphill battle, interest in distributed renewable energy generation remains high.  In Saguache County alone, no less than 9 separate initiatives to bring affordable, clean energy to local communities are underway.

Until there's a state-wide political counter weight to utility opposition to proven policies like CLEAN, the success of these initiatives will be hard fought and energy democracy little more than a dream.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Colorado to BLM: get behind Solar Done Right

150 MW solar power plant, Kramer Junction, CA - Click to enlarge
Below is Saguache County resident Chuck Tidd’s statement to the BLM on the Mar 6th public meeting on the Solar PEIS.  The BLM is proposing to open "large swaths" of ecologically valuable public lands in Colorado (mostly in the San Luis Valley) and six western states, for large0scale industrial solar development.  Chuck is a member of the SLVRCA Board of Directors.

By putting forward a plan to approve large scale solar development on public land, the BLM is implicitly endorsing an energy paradigm whose time has come to an end.

This is the paradigm of large power generating facilities that transmit the electricity produced over thousands of miles of transmission lines.

This paradigm makes sense when talking about conventional forms of power generation – coal, natural gas, nuclear. But when talking about generating power from sunlight, this paradigm becomes far less efficient. It will destroy intact ecosystems on tens or even hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and it fails to use the built environment for point-of-use energy production.

Not only will the lands on which these projects be affected, but they will mandate the construction of expensive new transmission lines, which are not addressed in the PEIS, further unnecessarily degrading our open space. And who will pay for these expensive boondoggles? Electricity rate payers, that's who.

Studies have shown that:

a) Constructing energy options at the point of use, known as distributed generation, is more efficient, because the distributed generation option avoids the cost of and transmission losses involved with large-scale remote developments. Based on an Energy Foundation study, there are 35,000 acres of appropriate rooftops in Colorado alone, representing 3,500-4,000 MW, almost double the amount of electricity projected for Colorado under the Zone Alternative.

b) Distributed generation will create more jobs and more long term jobs than costly mega-power projects.

c) Distributed generation can be implemented faster without disturbing carbon sequestering soils, thus getting to the goal of reducing atmospheric CO2 faster.

d) Since distributed generation takes place in the built environment, open lands are protected for other uses.

What is preventing this alternative paradigm from taking root?

First, it's the policies of so called “public” utilities that are designed to hold rate payers hostage to the greed of shareholders. They maintain rate structures that effectively prevent individuals and businesses from investing in their own power generation.

They are resisting change, as we saw last week when Xcel Energy lobbied and won the rejection of legislation that would have done nothing more than examine the possibility of distributed generation alternatives.

The other trend preventing a more serious consideration of distributed generation is studies from NREL, studies like this one, not to mention short-sighted support from environmental groups that all seek to identify “the best” land areas for solar generation while failing to recognize that virtually the entire nation is suitable for solar power generation.

These attitudes play into the hands of power companies that are seeking to keep power users enslaved to their development plans. On the other hand, take the example of Germany, where insolation is approximately the same as the state of Alaska, and where distributed generation has been enabled by legislation for over a decade.

Today, PV panels can be seen on virtually every building, and Germany is closing in on energy independence. Meanwhile, we continue to think about how we can most directly reduce our open lands.

To the public utilities present I would like to say, “think out of the box and change your business model”. There is money to be made installing, maintaining, financing and distributing the excess generation of photo voltaic facilities placed on the buildings of companies and private individuals across the nation, while at the same time incentivizing them to use less energy.

To the environmental groups that are failing to recognize that effective distributed generation alternatives are vastly preferable to sacrificing public lands to the machinations of powerful utilities, I say, “shame on you”. You endorsed a similar sacrifice once before with a little dam called Glen Canyon, and we will forever be paying the consequences. Do your homework and get behind the Solar Done Right program that will heal, not harm, rate payers, our economy, and our environment.

Finally, to the BLM representatives gathered here, I want to say, “while the mandate for the PEIS may be the analysis of BLM lands for solar development, in a programmatic EIS it is irresponsible not to include the possibility of more effective alternatives for solar development that do not involve the destruction of public lands”.

I encourage you to include a study of distributed power generation, including the legislative and financial steps that would be necessary to make every building in the US a power generating station. If you do that, I think you'll come to the conclusion that the alternative is to fully utilize the built environment we begin to build on open land – land that has many other valuable uses.


Friday, March 4, 2011

BLM solar zones wrong from the start

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”
-Albert Einstein

The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and partner agencies are proposing to open much of our nation's public land holdings to large scale, industrial solar energy development despite the existence of more cost-effective, faster and less environmentally damaging alternatives. 

Kramer Junction, CA ~150 MW/1,500-acre Solar Power Plant built in the 1980'
According to a coalition of industry groups scoping letter, developers have set their sites on accessing "large swaths of land" in California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.

Industrial solar power plants, up to 12,000-acres in size, have already been proposed by BP, Chevron, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and other traditional energy investors, across the six states.

Six of the nine Big Solar projects granted fast-track approvals by BLM and partner agencies in California and Nevada are already under lawsuit.  According to stakeholders involved in the litigation, important environmental and cultural resource reviews have been bypassed or rushed, under pressure from industry to meet federal funding deadlines. 

The 11,000 page Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement  (PEIS) is available for public review and comment through Mar 17th (Volume 4 covers Colorado).The draft BLM study proposes three alternatives:

  1. PREFERRED ALTERNATIVE:  lease 21,580,000-acres in six western states/148,000 acres in Colorado.  This is what DOI/BLM/DOE want.
  2. SOLAR ENERGY ZONE (SEZ) ALTERNATIVE: Expedited permitting on 677,000-acres/21,050 acres in SLV. Most environmental groups support this.
  3. “NO ACTION” ALTERNATIVE: NO limit on industry: 98,732,000 acres/7,282,000 in Colorado.  Those who want a case-by-case project evaluation support this.
We urge Federal agencies to take a sustainable renewable energy path.  Siting large-scale industrial solar power plants on high-value public lands hundreds of miles from urban centers will delay progress on renewable energy, drive the cost of solar energy up unnecessarily, further destroy our environment and deprive people and communities across Colorado and the nation of the benefits of locally generated renewable energy.

Many environmental groups maintain that large-scale industrial solar development is necessary to combat climate change.  However, recent research suggests these massive projects may not, in the long run, result in the assumed net CO2 reductions.  Dr. Michael Allen, at the Center for Conservation Biology at UC Riverside, found evidence that disassembling intact desert ecosystems could disrupt ancient carbon sinks and sequestration processes and lead to a net gain in atmospheric carbon.

The release of sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), a highly potent greenhouse gas used mostly for electric transmission and distribution, could also increase as new transmission is added to transport solar power hundreds of miles to urban centers.  SF6 has a global warming potential 23,900 times higher than CO2.

Distributed Generation in the built environment and the EPA RE-Powering America Plan offer more responsible and cost-effective alternatives for solar energy development that can be implemented rapidly with the added benefit of creating more jobs.   BLM has failed to consider how the existence of these alternatives effects the purpose or need for large scale development on intact public lands.

SLVRCA, in partnership with Solar Done Right, conclude:

“The PEIS is fundamentally flawed because it targets ecologically valuable, intact public lands first.  The study fails to seriously consider faster, more cost-effective and environment-friendly alternatives including Distributed Generation in the vast urban landscape and the EPA’s “RE-POWERING AMERICA” Plan that identifies over 17,000 suitable sites on already disturbed, degraded and contaminated wastelands.  There is no real need to sacrifice valuable public lands.  The DOI/BLM and DOE have the discretion to, and must, change this destructive course”

Request a copy of our joint summary briefing on BLM's Solar PEIS here.


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