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.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Towers threaten world-class scenic values in San Luis Valley

The San Luis Valley has long been known for its world-class scenic values.  It's home to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and a place where extraordinary wildlife migrations miraculously reoccur every spring and fall. 

~ 1 mile from the 600-foot power tower in Tonopah, NV.  Basin and Range Watch
The Valley's Unique Sense of Place was recognized nationally when Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, a native son to "El Valle", unveiled a grand new conservation and tourism initiative last week.

The assessment of the regions historical, cultural and natural resources, could clear the path for a new National Park in the region.

While the Valley and State have been abuzz about the new plan, some locals and Coloradans are worried.

A  little known proposal to build two 656-foot tall solar thermal tower powers could intrude on the Valley's unfettered views, wide-open spaces, decimate migrant eagle, Sandhill Crane, Brazilian Free-tail bat populations, and pose unknown hazards (such as retinal damage from glare) to surrounding communities.

The project was proposed by Saguache Solar Energy, LLC, a Project-specific entity owned by SolarReserve, LLC, based in Delaware.  The company wants to build the massive twin towers on a 6,500-acre swath of land just north of the town of Center, located, not surprisingly, near the middle of the Valley.

Just 58-feet short of the tallest building in Denver -- the 56-story Republic Plaza -- the massive twin towers will dominate the mostly uniform plain of the 120 x 75-mile valley floor, for miles around.

The towers will rival the 650-foot "High Dune", the tallest dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve - a mere 30-miles east of the towers.

On the left is the viewshed simulation submitted in SolarReserve's final 1041 application to Saguache County (the 2nd tower from the left is the theoretical view from 5 miles away). 

Up top and below are photos of the actual 600-foot solar thermal power tower just completed by SolarReserve in Nevada, from 1 (above) and between 5 and 6 miles from the tower.

As you can see, the facility is sited in the middle of a broad basin, similar to the San Luis Valley, near Tonopah, Nevada (visit Basin and Range Watch to see more pictures and learn more about the very similar "Crescent Dunes" project).   

According to the SolarReserve application, each of the two 100 MW units will contain up to 17,500 individual 24 x 28-foot tracking mirrors (called "heliostats") on 12-foot pedestals.  The mirrors will be placed in concentric rings extending 1.6 miles in diameter around each tower in an approximately 6,500-acre field.

The Nevada heliostat field has not been built yet.  If the above visual "simulation" is reflective of the "truth in advertising" that can be expected from SolarReserve, what can the citizens of Center, Saguache County and surrounding communities make of the rest of their analysis?

As the Saguache County Commissioners near a decision, many unresolved questions and concerns about the project remain, including:
    1) What are the costs to the County?  New short-and long-term costs will have to be absorbed for school, housing, emergency, road maintanence and other county services.  How will the project impact housing costs and other infrastructure?  (See "Big Solar's Promise" for an analysis of a similar project proposed by Tessera Solar last year). 

    2) What are the impacts on wildlife and agricultural resources?  How will the power tower, mirrors and salt-saturated evaporation ponds effect migrant birds,  including federally protected Golden and Bald Eagles, and the roughly 20,000 Sandhill Cranes and 200,000 Brazilian Free-Tailed bats that migrate to the valley (and provide free pest management services to farmers) each year?

    According to local experts, the power tower is located on "some of the most productive agricultural land in the San Luis Valley".  While the need for agricultural withdrawals is a daunting reality in the Valley, as farmers work to make aquifers "whole" again, is conversion of 6,500 acres of prime agricultural land the best choice when degraded or unused land is readily available?

    Jobs from local vs absentee owned solar
    3) What are the opportunity costs?  It's no secret that local community power creates significantly more jobs and local revenue than absentee owned energy generation (See Al Weinrub's Community Power Report, for more on this).

    What path dependencies would the San Luis Valley and Colorado be obligated to that could stymie the ability of our rural communities, farmers, ranchers and businesses to develop local, distributed solar generation in the future?

    How will the project impact the ability of other Colorado communities to develop local renewable energy resources given the current limited utility market for renewable energy?

    4) How will the project impact ratepayers?   SolarReserve is promoting the power tower as a "proven technology", yet it plans to seek an exemption from the 2% rate cap required by the Renewable Energy Standard, allowed for "experimental" technologies.  If such an exemption is granted, will there be no limit to what Xcel Energy can bill ratepayers should it negotiate a Power Purchase Agreement with Solar Reserve?

    These, and other concerns deserve a full examination before Saguache County Commissioners approve a project that could severely impact the San Luis Valley's most precious natural resources and future prospects for locally-owned and controlled renewable energy development.  

    Monday, January 9, 2012

    Who will control our solar energy future: people or corporations?

    Two key decisions lay before our federal and county elected officials that will greatly influence the energy future of Saguache County, the San Luis Valley and Colorado.  We urge people throughout the San Luis Valley and Colorado to let the BLM and Saguache BOCC know which vision of our energy future you would like to see come to bear (details at the end of the post).

    The San Luis Valley, CO has been in the national spotlight recently as one of the "coolest" hot spots for solar energy generation.  Since around 2005, plenty of corporate solar energy developers have lined up to exploit the valley's cool sun and high generation values for private profit. 

    What most don't realize is that the people who make the San Luis Valley their home have been quietly stoking a different, more democratic, grassroots solar paradigm, going back more than a quarter of a century.

    In the mid 1980's the Solar Energy Research Institute  -- now the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, 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."

    The early San Luis Valley solar innovators knew what many are just beginning to discover: locally owned clean energy is the path to true energy independence and lasting prosperity that benefits real people and communities.

    From: Community Power by Al Weinrub
    John Farrell, with the Energy Self-Reliant States Project recently recognized Gainsville, Florida "among the world leaders in solar installed per capita", beating out Japan, France China and California with a whopping 36 kW for each of its 125,000 residents.

    When the 30 MW Cogentrix facility goes online in April, the Valley will generate 1.78 kW of solar energy for each of its 50,000 residents.  An impressive beginning given that the average household PV system is 2-10 kW.  This is enough electricity to power 100% of the San Luis Valley's average daytime demand (on paper, more than 2/3 is exported, but the laws of physics dictate that the solar electrons be consumed at the closest point of demand).  

    As the Valley faces critical energy issues, such as the need for a $.5 billion new transmission line or whether or not to approve massive, industrial power plant proposals like Tessera Solar's failed 200 MW dish Stirling proposal and the 656-foot tall power tower, 4,000-acre facility currently under review in Saguache County, a grand opportunity is being overlooked by all but a handful of local energy visionaries.

    The San Luis Valley's geographic isolation, extraordinary solar resource and abundant solar generation puts it in the unique position to become the nations first energy independent region and a model for every community in Colorado. 

    The little village of Wildpoldsried, Germany is a harbinger of what the San Luis Valley could become.   In less than a decade and a half, the town installed enough renewable energy to produce 321% of its local energy needs – and it’s generating $5.7 million (US) in annual revenue by selling the excess back to the grid.

    The key to Wildpoldsried's success is local ownership.  

    The town's local energy initiative was launched in 1997 when the village council made the decision to build new industries, keep initiatives local and bring in new revenue.

    Over the next 14 years, the community equipped nine new community buildings with solar panels, built four biogas digesters (with a fifth underway) and installed seven windmills. In the village itself, 190 private households have solar panels.  The district also benefits from three small hydro power plants, ecological flood control, and a natural waste water system.

    Here in the San Luis Valley, outside corporate and government powers have a different plan.  Rather than maximizing local benefits, they are proposing the same export dependent economic "development" model that has kept the San Luis Valley in poverty for decades.

    The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to open over 111,000 acres of public land in the San Luis Valley to corporate solar development for massive centralized solar power plants that dwarf the small, distributed SunEdison, Iberdrola, Cogentrix and SunPower utility installations in Alamosa County (for a critique of the BLM plan see the Wrong from the Start report produced by Solar Done Right). 

    There is no doubt that these projects will provide limited tax revenue and sorely needed, but temporary construction jobs.  But they also pave the way for 90% of the economic value of solar energy to flow straight out of the Valley into the hands of absentee corporate owners and investors.

    Will the people and communities of the San Luis Valley really prosper by laying out the red carpet for industry to collect the gold at the end of our solar rainbow?  Or is it time for real bottom-up economic development that allows San Luis Valley property owners, farmers, ranchers, small businesses and communities to reap the benefits from local solar generation? 

    Despite many obstacles, a brave new path is quietly being blazed by a small group of dedicated renewable energy innovators in the San Luis Valley.
    Town of Del Norte (Rio Grande County) Solar-powered Water System

    The Orient Land Trust near Poncha Pass has been off-grid for decades and recently expanded its hybrid geothermal-microhydro generation plant to meet 100% of its needs.  The Town of Del Norte recently celebrated the completion of its 1.9 MW Net-Zero Solar network.

    Town of Mesita, Costilla County, CO Biodiesel plant
    In the tiny town of Mesita, the Costilla County canola/biodiesel plant also has plans to expand production to provide more clean, sustainable fuel from locally grown canola to more Valley customers. The 300 kW Humprey's microhydro generation plant made a big splash last fall when it went into the operation. The City of Alamosa, Alamosa, Del Norte, Costilla and Crestone District Schools, Adams State College, SLV Regional Medical Center and SLV Federal Bank have all gone solar.  

    Dozens of pioneering SLV farmers have installed solar PV panels to power irrigation pumps and efforts are moving forward to develop up to 2,500 MW of solar generation on crop circle pivot corners without adversely impacting valuable agricultural lands.  And last, but not least, hundreds (perhaps as many as 1,000) homeowners have installed solar PV on their rooftops since the 1970's.

    These locally owned installations create real energy independence that renews our communities from the ground up.  

    Some people think we can have both local and industrial solar development, but the evidence from renewable energy experts suggests otherwise.  Industrial solar is more likely to absorb limited financial resources, monopolize existing transmission capacity, saturate markets and create a path dependency that leaves little room for local energy-based economic development.  The diversion of limited resources for solar industrialization in the San Luis Valley could restrict the ability of all Colorado communities to generate, and reap the benefits of local renewable energy.

    Two key decisions lay before our federal and county elected officials that could determine the energy future of Saguache County, the San Luis Valley and Colorado.  We urge people throughout the San Luis Valley and Colorado to let the BLM and Saguache BOCC know which vision of our energy future you would like to see come to bear.  


    This week, Coloradans have a chance to endorse or reject the Bureau of Land Management, Supplement to the Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Study (SPEIS), plan to open more than 100,000 -acres of public lands in the San Luis Valley (including 4 Solar Energy Zones) to massive corporate, industrial solar development:

    Wed. January 11, 2012
    7 pm (displays open at 6 pm)
    Inn of the Rio Grande
    333 Santa Fe Ave., Alamosa, CO
     Call (800) 669-1658 for more information
    Download the PEIS documents here.  
    For a critique of the BLM plan 
    see the Wrong from the Start report produced by Solar Done Right.

    Comment deadline: Jan. 27th

    Written comments on the SPEIS can be submitted through the Public Comment Form. Submitting comments through the Public Comment Form is the preferred method for purposes of tracking and providing confirmation of receipt. However, comments can also be mailed to:

    Solar Energy Draft PEIS
    Argonne National Laboratory
    9700 S. Cass Avenue, EVS/240, Argonne, IL 60439


    Solar Reserve 650' tall power tower just completed in Nevada (solar mirror field is yet to be constructed)
    The Saguache Board of County Commissioners is currently considering Solar Reserve's 1041 permit application to develop two 656-foot power towers on 4,000-acres near Center, CO, approximately 25 miles west of Great Sand Dunes National Park.  The project could change the visual landscape of much of the San Luis Valley and irreversibly impact migrant wildlife, including the 20,000 Sandhill Cranes and 200,000 Brazilian free-tail bats that visit the SLV annually (more about the proposed project on our blog and the Crestone Eagle)

    Comment deadline:  
    3 pm, Thur., Jan. 26th 
    Email to: Wendi Maez at 
    or mail to:  Saguache County Land Use 
    PO Box 326, Saguache, CO 81149

    Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012
    2 pm to 8 pm
    Center School Auditorium, Center, CO
    Instructions on how to access the Solar Reserve Permit Application here.