Monday, January 30, 2012

Response to “Global interdependence: The case for large-scale green energy” by Lee Temple

Below is a response to, “Global interdependence: The case for large-scale green energy” by Lee Temple from Ceal Smith, Founder, San Luis Valley Renewable Communities Alliance and co-founder, Solar Done Right.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.”
Albert Einstein
Taking a closer look reveals that there is no free lunch, we have better (faster, cheaper, smarter, and more democratic) choices and depending on "business as usual" old energy thinking, is not a real solution.   If we truly wish to address global climate change, we have no choice but to take our collective energy future into our own hands and demand new policies that promote a more democratic, decentralized energy system.

“Large projects are criticized for greater local disruption, while small ones are less disruptive (and less carbon-reducing)”
Ceal response:  On a dollar per kWh basis, point of use distributed generation (DG) is 7-20% more efficient and cost-effective than remote, industrial renewable energy (see Betting on the Wrong Solar Horse, by Bill Powers). The cost and inefficiencies of transporting electricity over long distances is considerable.   New transmission can cost $ millions per/mile, further impact the environment (see below for SF6 impacts) and incur line losses up to 15%.  In Colorado, these losses effectively cancel the net gain of generating solar for export from the San Luis Valley.  Because remote industrial solar is more costly and inefficient, the rate and amount of solar energy the public gets for its dollars will be reduced substantially (little worry to corporate investors, since industrial scale projects will be underwritten by taxpayers and ratepayers).
“It recognizes that neighboring bio-regions aren’t always so renewable-energy-fortunate.  Being a good bio-regional neighbor means sharing our “solar wealth” with less fortunate neighboring bio-regions. 
Ceal response: Wind, sun and other renewable energy sources are available virtually everywhere, and can be economically harnessed at small scales across the world, country, state and community.  According to Energy Self-Reliant States, Colorado has the resources to be 100% energy independent using available solar, wind, small hydro, geothermal and biofuel resources.  

Allocation of limited transmission, finance and  technical resources creates a path dependency, on remote, corporate-owned industrial solar that primarily benefits utility investors, while depriving local communities of the opportunity to develop, and benefit (beyond a handful of unskilled jobs) from their own renewable resources.

Like most "carbonmentalists", Lee is ignoring the substantial ecological footprint imposed by large-scale industrial projects like SolarReserve When viewed holistically from a total life-cycle perspective, will these projects really compare to DG in the built environment?

The assumption that these projects will lead to a net-reduction in C02 emissions is unproven
Scientists at the University of California, Riverside conclude that more research is needed before we plow ahead blindly with massive industrial solar development.  For example, do we know how much concrete will be produced to build two massive 656-foot towers, how much diesel fuel burned to transport all of the material and supplies to our remote location?  What is the footprint of the additional transmission needed to move SLV energy to the front-range?  

Sulfur Hexafluoride/SF6 is a green house gas 23,900 times more potent as CO2.  Most SF6 emissions are generated in long-distance transmission of electrical power, the more remote a new facility is, and the more additional miles of transmission line needed to deliver its power to the grid, the higher the SF6 burden of each new generating facility will be. In 2010 the EPA estimated average emissions of between .58 and .89 kilograms of SF6 for every mile of transmission line per year over the last decade. For more on this, please see: Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Industrial Solar.  

None of these factors are included in the "carbon reduction" equation used to justify these projects.  

I agree with Lee that time is running out. We don't have time to do the research to know if industrial solar will, in fact, result in emissions reductions.  But can we afford to give it the benefit of the doubt?  Wouldn't it be wiser to follow the more certain and proven path forged by Germany and the increasing number of countries that have surged ahead of the US with the massive deployment of distributed generation?

Will solar energy generated remotely actually replace fossil fuel use, or will it simply be an add-on to the ever-growing energy pie, perhaps even encouraging people to use ever more energy, because, hey, its clean!  Locally generated solar has obvious and tangible built-in incentives that are proven to reduce energy consumption at the point of use.

We know that power towers kill birds but the only study we have is on a comparatively tiny 10 MW plant long since decommissioned in CA.  It's possible that SolarReserve could cause the death of thousands of migrant birds and bats over its lifetime.  But most power tower impacts are unknown; microclimate impacts, visual (including retinal effects of glint and glare from 35,000 – 25 foot square helistat mirrors), groundwater, emergency & fire, other wildlife impacts and more.  

At the very least, wouldn't it be wise to wait until the SolarReserve Nevada project (the first ever salt tower to be deployed at this scale) is operating and actual impacts known, before endorsing this project?
“The large-scale approach thus seeks fair, balanced trade between the valley and the larger world, a sharing of the corporate infrastructure burden, and accepting at least some of the responsibility for sustaining it here.  Thankfully, multi-decade transformative leadership by far-sighted visionaries like Paul Hawken, Al Gore, Amory Lovins, William McDonough and Jeremy Rifkin pioneered green commerce models that have improved the global business activities of established corporations and new ones like SolarReserve”
Ceal Response:  The energy industry, in particular, has amassed more political power than any industry, at any time in history.  Industry tycoons like the Koch brothers have callously and deliberately used their wealth and power to undermine global efforts to combat climate change and move aggressively towards a clean energy economy.   The proponents of industrial solar and wind are, in many cases, the same corporations (BP, Chevron, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, et al.) who are implicated in our global environmental and economic crisis.
Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Jeremy Rifkin, Bill McKibben and other energy visionaries are, in fact, calling for massive deployment of distributed generation and Energy Democracy.  See:
Emory Lovins, Small is Profitable.  In a recent Circle of Blue story on big solar in the San Luis Valley, Jesse Morris, a solar analyst at the Rocky Mountain Institute (founded by Emory Lovins), agreed that the economics of clean energy production is likely to shift from big centralized solar installations to individual rooftop solar and smaller distributed systems and that large facilities,  "have real issues.”
Hermann Scheer, the Solar Economy
Al Weinrub, Community Power (endorsed by Bill McKibben, Angelina Galiteva, Paul Gipe, James Woolsey, John Farrell, Randy Hayes and others)
John Farrell, Democratizing the Electricity System – A vision for the 21st Century Grid

Even William McDonough said, "there is no reason we can't put out a trillion solar panels and millions of solar water heaters starting right now.  We have the tools and the willpower, now we need a new way of thinking"
“SolarReserve is currently SLV’s only larger-scale, high-effectiveness, quick-turn-around option.  Each of its two planned 100 MW phases (75% of SLV’s peak load ea.) take 2.5 years to build.  When fully completed, it would single-handedly mitigate the majority of SLV’s carbon footprint—2.4 million/tons/CO2/yr!  Most or all the power will stay here short-term, enhancing our electrical resilience, self-reliance and energy-independence while small-scale projects ramp up”
Ceal Response: A very undesirable side-effect, ignored by Lee is that full implementation of SolarReserve would require a $.5 billion new transmission line and open the door to the large-scale industrialization of the San Luis Valley. 
SolarReserve is not our only "quick-turn-around" option.  Oddly, its a little know fact that the SLV is already well on its way to being energy self-reliant.  According to the Solar Energy Research Institute (now NREL), in the 1980's the SLV had more installed solar (all distributed) than anyplace in the nation.  When Cogentrix goes on line later this year, the San Luis Valley will generate 100% of its average daytime electricity use from local solar.  According to energy expert Bill Powers, the Valley has the potential to become 100% energy self-sufficient through local, distributed generation with a few, targeted policy changes.  

It takes almost no time to permit and install distributed solar, compared to the 2-4 yr. (or longer) time required for industrial projects.   With Property Assessed Clean Energy and German style Feed-intariffs, enough distributed solar, microhydro and onsite storage could be installed in a year to reliably meet the Valley's needs.  A recent report by Colorado Harvesting Energy Network revealed that San Luis Valley farmers could generate 2,500 MW, using just the pivot crop circle corners.  Local solar would generate magnitudes more economic benefit for the valley while still allowing up to 1000 MW export on the existing, but upgraded, transmission grid. 
Germany is the world’s leader in solar energy, with 7,400 MW of solar installed in 2010 alone.  Over 80% of Germany’s solar generation is distributed and 50% of its solar PV (17 GW) is owned by individuals and farmers

Every location in the continental US has more solar energy than Germany, even rainy Seattle, WA has 15% more solar than Germany, yet we barely generate 3.6 GW nationwide! 

What the reason for this failure?  In the US, corporate utility and other business interests have consistently fought the implementation of PACE, FITS and other proven policy tools.  Grassroots efforts are beginning to take hold in Gainsville, Florida, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington and California, but until we have the political will to overcome corporate opposition, the US will continue to lag behind the rest of the world.   
"In the bigger picture, SolarReserve will greatly support the health and vitality of the larger whole, the global interdependence of humanity and nature.  If we still had lots of time, and the SLV was an idyllic, autonomous world unto itself, we could legitimately wait for superior technologies and/or small-is-beautiful methodologies to save the day. Unfortunately though, time is short, we don’t live in a vacuum, and we can’t continue shirking the CC heavy-lifting.  Although it’s imperfect, one trait makes SolarReserve admirable and worthy of our support:  its huge, global-interdependence-recognizing, carbon-saving paradigm is doable, right here, right now, and hopefully, in time."
Ceal response: Relying on the SolarReserve path may well be the easiest, but it is not the fastest, most cost effective, efficient or smartest.  Relying on remote, absentee-owned industrial solar will serve to drive the cost of solar energy up for all of us and perpetuate our dependence on "out of sight-out of mind" energy sources and the same corporate-driven, consumption-based old energy system that got us into the global warming mess in the first place.   Einstein was right when he said, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them”.   It’s time for a new energy paradigm.


Warren said...

Resolutionism: How To Save The World

Great article! Thank you for sharing!

Warren said...

Ceal Smith,

You're right, when you say "It’s time for a new energy paradigm."

I'm wondering if you've read anything on Resolutionism.
Here's a link.