Sunday, August 28, 2011

Monopoly Energy or Energy Democracy?

Maybe it was the report from California that large solar lease investors are making an aggressive grab for Governor Brown's groundbreaking 12,000 MW of distributed generation in CA that made me crack.  Or it could have been the insiders comment that the Bureau of Land Management is under explosive pressure to auction off Colorado's last untouched public lands for oil and gas leasing, on top of Secretary of Interior Salazar's push to open 19 million acres of intact public land for industrial solar development.  But probably, it was watching this hilarious, but tragically revealing, 2010 Daily Show where Jon Stewart reminds us that our last 8 Presidents have vowed, and failed in various degrees, to achieve energy independence and end our dependency on fossil fuels, that was the final straw. 

In any case, I am staring at the hard truth that we grassroots environmental/clean energy advocates, climate and anti-fracking/fossil fuel activists, and regular folks who just want affordable energy that doesn't wreck the environment, are losing.  No, its worse than that.  Our pocketbooks, planet, public safety and welfare have been hijacked as we are aggressively forced to depend on increasingly destructive and dirty energy sources.
Its been a discouraging year.   Especially when measured against the encouraging gains being made by the rest of the world. Ontario, Canada's economy is bursting with clean energy generation and jobs.  Despite being downplayed in the US, Germany has maintained its global lead in solar energy while pushing to go beyond nuclear. Now Japan, has adopted a new feed-in tariff (FIT) designed to spur 30,000 MW of renewable energy by 2020. (FIT's are unequivocally the most effective policy incentive for renewable energy).

The US is dragging desperately behind in the global "race" to keep climate change in check, which at this point (392.39 ppm and counting), demands no less than a complete and immediate transformation of our global energy system.

Adding insult to injury, we are even losing hard fought ground. Colorado's pioneer Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing program continues to be derailed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Xcel's abrupt and steep reduction in Solar*Rewards has cost Colorado thousands of good, green jobs, and even a very modest FIT study bill didn't make it past first base in the state legislature earlier this year. 

While there have been a few hard earned gains, like Solar Garden's and solar permitting reform legislation, the bottom line - financing - for solar remains chronically anemic here and in most of the US.

In contrast, "monopoly energy" is moving full throttle ahead.  Massive new natural gas, oil and industrial wind and solar "plays" are being staked out by industry across the nation;  Many in areas that have hitherto been spared from destructive energy development, like Huerfano County in southern Colorado.

After decades of secrecy, exemption and billions in taxpayer subsidies, we are just beginning to understand the true cost of monopoly energy for our communities, public health and environment.  And to make matters worse, when developed under the central, industrial old energy model, even 'renewable' energy sources like wind and solar, take on the same destructive qualities.

Monopoly energy continues to reap record profits while failing miserably to protect our health and environment.  Public cries grow stronger and demonstrations grow larger and longer.  Yet, our dutifully elected 'deciders' routinely shove our environmental "laws" aside and widen the path for unpopular and dangerous big energy projects at their bidding.

All of this is leading up to the painfully obvious question: Why have 'we as a nation' failed to move ahead in achieving wildly popular (and democratic) local clean energy goals, more than 40 years after we recognized the need?  

Germany's solar champion, Hermann Scheer offered this answer in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! shortly before his death:

“We’re in a race between centralized and decentralized, energy monopoly and energy democracy. The mobilization of society is most important and once people realize they can’t wait for the government or utilities, but can do it themselves, it will change. 

Most importantly, Scheer said, "People need to act to overcome administrative and bureaucratic barriers that hinder renewable energy. The rules favoring conventional energy and blocking decentralized renewable energy need to be exposed and dismantled”.

Japan has learned the same lesson, albeit far more painfully than Germany.  In a report by Paul Gipe on Japan's recent adoption of a feed-in tariff, designed to spur more than 30,000 MW of renewable energy by 2020, he pointed out that:

"Observers say a key feature of the new law is the creation of a special parliamentary committee to determine the details of the program, including specific tariffs. In the past, this function would normally have been assigned to the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).  However, the political fallout from the nuclear disaster at Fukishima has led to a dramatic loss of trust in METI, which has opposed both the rapid expansion of renewables, and also the use of feed-in tariffs to do so. Taking program design and pricing away from METI is a major victory for renewable energy advocates in Japan"

Like METI in Japan, monopoly energy (including the utility industry) devoutly opposes progressive renewable energy policies that will decentralize and democratize energy systems in the US.  A major player in the Corporatocracy, Monopoly Energy has captured the White House and most of Congress, dominates State energy politics and in many cases, even controls local agendas.

Until people unite with the understanding that monopoly energy's strangle-hold on our society and resources must be directly challenged and dismantled, as it was in Germany and now Japan, we will continue to expect unrealistic outcomes, bend our expectations to the needs of power and fall farther behind, as the rest of the world transitions to clean energy.

Read this on Common Dreams

Thursday, August 11, 2011

California takes on 12K MW distributed generation challenge

"A political battle over who will benefit from decentralized/distributed generation of renewable energy is shaping up. This is a battle for which our communities will need to mobilize if we are not to be first marginalized and then regarded as an opposition to be crushed."

California Governor Jerry Brown's progressive goal of 12,000 MW of distributed renewable energy by 2020 has the potential to move US renewable energy policy in a more sensible and democratic direction.  Several of our Solar Done Right colleagues attended the Governors 2-day conference.  The consensus is that energy democracy will not come easily.
Challenges Ahead: 
Brown’s 12K MW Local Renewables Target
Commentary by Al Weinrub
August 10, 2011

Jerry Brown led off his conference of 250 high level renewable energy stakeholders July 25-26, 2011 by calling for a “more secure, more sustainable, more American” energy system. The conference was organized to help chart the path to 12,000 MW of local renewable power by 2020, as called for by the Governor.

Key to achieving the 12,000 megawatts will be overcoming significant obstacles, among them being bureaucratic approval and permitting barriers, grid integration and interconnect difficulties, and finding appropriate amounts of investment capital. And, of course, building political consensus.

The conference started off with a bang as the governor, referring to some of these obstacles, blatantly asserted that “some kind of opposition you have to crush.”

With that auspicious beginning, and after the Governor and press cameras had departed, two intensive days of deliberation began. The by-invitation-only participants consisted of about 50% renewable industry representatives and consultants, 25% government personnel (the governor’s staff, energy agency commissioners and staff, a few legislators, and county and regional agency representatives), and the remainder representing  investor-owned and municipal utilities, a few unions, financial institutions, environmentalists, and a smattering of decentralized/distributed generation advocates.

There seemed to be a great deal of consensus at the conference about the need to streamline renewable energy project approvals across the plethora of government agencies that are often involved, and also about the need for utilities to be more forthcoming about technical data required by project developers. There was much less consensus, however, about what kind of projects would be developed, where, and by whom.

In fact, the main contention at the conference was between those who emphasized least cost of energy as the main criteria for decentralized generation projects and those who stressed other values, such as local economic development, jobs, equity, community health, and the like. The conflict was framed in many ways, but emerged most directly between those parties who advocated for large projects (5 – 20 MW) through a renewable auction mechanism (RAM and those who advocated for community-scale projects (0 -5 MW) promoted through a feed-in tariff mechanism.

Not surprisingly, the utilities and big developers like Recurrent Energy were pushing the least-cost criteria, calling for the 12,000 MW to be developed as larger 10 -20 MW ground-mounted solar PV projects close to transmission substations and selected through a RAM program. Surprisingly, they were joined by The Utility Reform Network (TURN), which argued that this approach would result in the least cost of energy and hence best protection of ratepayers.

The other side included the Los Angeles Business Council, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, the Clean Coalition, the Local Clean Energy Alliance, Solar Done Right, and other long-time decentralized generation advocates who called for the 12,000 MW to be developed as smaller-scale projects in urbanized areas where economic recovery, jobs, equity, and health are key goals. These parties argued for a comprehensive feed-in tariff program that would promote this type of local renewable development. They also argued against the prevailing assumption that larger scale projects are less expensive, pointing not only to rapidly declining prices for solar PV installations, but to a fuller set of socio-economic costs and benefits, which the big players conveniently ignored.

Amidst the palpable jubilation of the renewable energy industry over Brown’s commitment to local renewable energy, the Governor’s conference revealed emerging battle lines over how that 12,000 MW target will be deployed. Will California’s “local” renewable energy projects primarily represent the interests of the big industry players or the interests of local communities?

This is a question for which the stakes are high; whether California will go down the old road (simply calling it something new) or whether it will take a qualitatively different approach. If the representation of invitees at this conference is indicative of the Governor’s leanings, there is reason for concern, if not alarm. Despite Brown’s campaign platform of more democracy and more local control, there was very little community present at this conference.

A political battle over who will benefit from decentralized/distributed generation of renewable energy is shaping up. This is a battle for which our communities will need to mobilize if we are not to be first marginalized and then regarded as an opposition to be crushed.