Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Clean Power, Healthy Communities Conference

On May 10th, the Local Clean Energy Alliance (Al Weinrub, author of Community Power) is bringing together some of the nations most influential and innovative leaders in the emerging grassroots local, clean energy movement.  For those of us who are tired of waiting for government to act and ready to move our communities away from dirty, health-threatening fossil fuels, this is a not to be missed conference. The full day conference includes presentations by Bill Powers, author of Bay Area Smart Energy 2020, Paul Fenn, founder of Local Energy/creator of Community Choice Aggregation, and Feed-in Tariff expert and advocate, Paul Gipe and many others.

PEOPLE POWER/Energy Solutions for the 99%
The 3rd Annual Conference of the Local Clean Energy Alliance
Thursday, May 10, 2012
California Endowment Conference Center, Oakland CA 
Also by live video stream ($10 registration)

The Local Clean Energy Alliance is proud to announce the 3rd annual Clean Power, Healthy Communities Conference, where we promote a clean energy economy as a powerful way to address the economic development, employment, and health needs of Bay Area communities.

With few prospects for a national plan to reduce greenhouse gases, local communities are leading the way to equitable, clean energy solutions. The San Francisco Bay Area, with its strong grassroots advocacy organizations and many renewable energy initiatives, is in a unique position to provide local clean energy leadership.
Over the past year a number of initiatives have emerged that challenge the utility-scale central-station model of electricity development in favor of more decentralized generation. These range from Governor Brown’s call for 12,000 MW of California distributed electricity generation by 2020, to efforts to promote “community solar” projects, to growing interest by many cities and counties in Community Choice energy programs, to greater advocacy by municipalities and regional governmental for reducing energy demand and generating local renewable energy.

Nevertheless, Bay Area communities seeking equitable, sustainable energy solutions are confronted by a number of political and economic obstacles. These challenge us to pull together behind a local renewable energy development plan for the region. Movement in this direction has already been initiated under the auspices of the Joint Policy Committee (of the four Bay Area regional planning agencies). For this effort to succeed, local communities and grassroots organizations have a decisive role to play.
The questions of who controls energy and for whose benefit are increasingly central to addressing the economic and climate crises of our communities. We need an equitable energy solution that addresses the needs of the 99%.

The 3rd annual Clean Power, Healthy Communities conference will convene advocates, stakeholders, decision makers, and entrepreneurs promoting clean energy and healthy communities in the Bay Area. The conference is meant to build greater involvement of communities in reducing energy demand and promoting local renewable energy. It is also meant to provide regional coordination and collective responsibility around a Bay Area local clean energy action plan.

•    What’s at Stake for Bay Area Communities?
•    Bay Area Energy Initiatives
•    Programs and Policies that Change the Game

See the Conference Program

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Solar power works best when it stays small and local

In the spring of 2010, I was minding my own business, directing a small nonprofit whose focus for 15 years has been to fight any and all attempts to privatize public land. From bad land swaps that benefit billionaires and cheat the public to congressional sell-off schemes, we thought we'd seen it all. Then along came the Obama administration's push to deal with climate change and energy dependence by turning our Southwest deserts into factories for industrial-scale solar energy.

Cheered on by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and subsidized through the Energy and Treasury departments, what's come to be called “Big Solar” was on track to take over hundreds of thousands of acres of public land. While the developments would be on land leased, not purchased, from the government, it became clear to us that the transformation and permanent industrialization of the land really amounted to privatization.

Yet only a few people seemed to be fighting it. Fewer still talked about alternatives. That spring, along with solar wonks and desert lovers from California and Nevada [and Colorado], I co-founded Solar Done Right, an informal grassroots coalition, to oppose the solar-industrialization of our desert public lands and to promote distributed generation — local, small-scale — in the built environment and on already-degraded lands.

We started that fall with an advocacy trip to Washington, D.C. We quickly found that while Democrats were concerned about the environmental impacts, they were either resigned to the supposed necessity of Big Solar on public land, or indignant that we would oppose any kind of renewable-energy development.

As for the Republicans, they essentially wanted more oil and gas development and viewed distributed generation with suspicion. In any event, when the Republicans won back the House and Congress settled into profound gridlock, we could see that grassroots advocacy at that level was futile.

To make matters worse, the Obama administration had become committed to Big Solar. The president, who plainly has no feeling for public land, handed over our country's renewable energy policy to the Interior Department, an outfit most skilled in the handing out of public resources.

Even as the Interior Department issues 30-year leases to the renewables industry, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified 15 million acres of developed, degraded and contaminated lands across the country that are also potentially suitable for solar energy development.

Behind the scenes, but seemingly in full control, are the same entities that have long dominated our development of fossil fuels: BP, Chevron, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs. With corporations steering policy toward massive solar arrays and away from small-scale and local renewable energy, it is virtually impossible to counter them at the federal-policy level.

Bringing up the rear are national environmental organizations such as The Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which that have bought into this disastrous approach. Funded by the very foundations and corporations that thrive on the status quo, their job is to create the illusion of change for the better, while ensuring that nobody upsets apple carts or makes waves.

Yet daunting as this all sounds, there is one way to work around the entrenched political, environmental and corporate power arrayed on the side of Big Solar, and that way is to go to the people.

Citizens don't serve the monopolistic utilities, and they don't make decisions based on what's best for investment firms. They instantly understand how local renewables better serve our interests. If you tell them about the havoc being wrought upon desert ecosystems, most react by saying that it's wrong. Tell them they can have solar panels on their roofs and feed power into a community grid, and they're all over it. Distributed generation is an angst-free solution that makes sense to real people. It serves taxpayers, ratepayers, job-seekers and desert tortoises.

In that light, the Solar Done Right coalition is focusing on public education and engagement to bring change. The vehicle is our Call to Action for Energy Democracy, a platform that outlines the consequences of industrial-scale, public land-focused renewable energy development. We think small and local is the way to go, and we're working to build a movement toward sensible renewable-energy development from the ground up.

Janine Blaeloch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She lives in Seattle and is the founder and director of the Western Lands Project. Visit for more information about its Call to Action and for answers to the questions: “Aren't you just NIMBYs?” and “Don't desert tortoises secretly want more shade from solar panels?”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The smart energy roadmap we've been waiting for.

San Francisco Bay Area Clean Energy Roadmap Would Slash Emissions, Push Zero Net Energy Buildings

California is rightfully lauded for its world-leading energy policy. Yet I often hear from business and political leaders that the state could do much more. A new report published by Pacific Environment presents a vision for the San Francisco Bay Area in which available energy technologies and policy tools are fully implemented. The roadmap finds that local clean energy, including 4,000 megawatts of solar PV, and a focus on zero net energy buildings could slash greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector by more than 60% by 2020.

Bay Area Smart Energy 2020 (BASE 2020) was written by Bill Powers, a San Diego-based energy consultant. Powers is the author of a similar report, San Diego Smart Energy 2020, released in 2007, which argued that aggressive deployment of local renewable energy and combined heat and power could make superfluous the controversial Sunrise Powerlink, now under construction in eastern San Diego County.

At the March 12 report launch, Powers called BASE 2020 a “distributed energy strategic plan” for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. “The primary focus is on energy efficiency and rooftop solar in the urban core,” he said, “with some combined heat and power, and a fair amount of emphasis on cutting down cooling loads in the summertime to minimize the drive to build more stuff to meet our energy needs.”

The BASE 2020 plan is based, as Powers readily acknowledged, on existing California policy. The difference being that Powers envisions a much more aggressive adoption of clean energy and energy efficiency than do state policymakers and the major utilities.

“The framework,” he said, “is the California Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan [PDF].” “I am not in the habit of complimenting the California Public Utilities Commission [CPUC] on the quality of their documents,” he quipped, “but this is an excellent document.”

A new Pacific Environment report provides a pathway to slash San Francisco Bay Area electricity emissions by 60% through local clean energy and aggressive energy efficiency.  

“In concept and theory, it is what we will do,” he said, “but I can guarantee you that unless everybody in the room is making a lot of noise about it all the time, it’s not what we will do.”

That plan assumes, as does Powers, that zero net energy construction will become the norm in new and, in time, existing buildings. BASE 2020 calls for at least 25% of Bay Area homes and commercial buildings to be zero net energy by 2020.

To reach that goal, Powers suggests four strategies, from a summary at the Pacific Environment website:
1. Solar Photovoltaics: Nearly 4,000 MW of solar energy is installed on rooftops, over parking lots and in Bay Area brownfields.
2. Energy Efficiency: Energy usage is reduced by 25 to 30 percent in Bay Area buildings and in agricultural operations. (Net-Zero Energy Buildings Are Coming)
3. Air Conditioning: Incentives will encourage upgrades of air conditioning, leading to a fifty percent reduction in energy usage.
4. Energy Storage: BASE 2020 calls for 200 MW of energy storage in the Bay Area to be located within buildings or as community energy storage projects.
These strategies would be complemented by new clean energy projects and three financing and policy tools, the latter, Powers writes in the executive summary, being the “primary vehicles to achieve the reduction in GHG emissions”:

1. Combined Heat and Power: BASE 2020 proposes 840 MW of new combined heat and power.

2. Geothermal: BASE 2020 recommends upgrading geothermal operations at The Geysers in Sonoma County, which would add 300 megawatts of capacity.

3. Wind: The BASE 2020 plan also includes 300 MW of new wind at the Solano wind complex. … BASE 2020 also calls for a 400 MW battery at the Solano wind complex to smooth out the intermittent wind power.

Financing: There are several options for financing these projects which need to be adopted in the Bay Area. These include “clean energy payments,” where the utility pays the building owner for excess power generated [more commonly known as a feed-in tariff]; the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Program, where projects are paid for as part of a property tax assessment; and Community Choice Aggregation [CCA], which allows communities to market and sell energy to their residents independently of PG&E.

BASE 2020 does not rely on technological leaps or impossible renewable energy deployment goals. Powers calls, for instance, for 200 MW of energy storage to be integrated with residential and commercial PV systems.

As I reported at this blog last month, Arizona’s largest utility just launched a pilot to test that very concept. Powers envisions adding 4GW of distributed solar to the Bay Area grid by 2020; Germany has installed nearly twice as much solar (7.5 GW) in each of the last two years alone.

At the same time, it’s not unreasonable to say that parts of the plan are audaciously ambitious. Take just one of the report’s core concepts: zero net energy buildings. The California Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan states that new homes and commercial buildings must be zero net energy by 2020 and 2030 respectively. BASE 2020 calls for all new Bay Area buildings to be zero net energy by 2015, and for the conversion of 25% of existing buildings to meet the same threshold by 2020. Last month, I wrote about the obstacles slowing efficiency gains in buildings already standing – where even the City of San Francisco is struggling to sell energy efficiency to its affluent, climate-conscious homeowners.

The plan also assumes the revival of property assessed clean energy (PACE) programs for homeowners. That outcome appears increasingly likely, with a recent court victory and the opening of a new federal rulemaking, but is not assured. BASE 2020 also advocates for the adoption of German-style feed-in tariffs to encourage the adoption of solar. “It’s been very difficult to make traction at the PUC to get a feed-in tariff that works,” Powers said.

“If, for institutional reasons, the PUC just can’t bring themselves to establish a tariff that works to put rooftop solar on homes,” he said, the State of California could administer a feed-in tariff program itself. Powers suggests that the Department of General Services could buy renewable energy at set rates and require the state’s investor-owned utilities, PG&E in the Bay Area, to purchase tranches of clean electricity.

After Bill Powers presented the highlights, Pacific Environment convened a panel of energy experts to reflect on the report recommendations. Renewable Funding President Cisco DeVries, credited with coming up with the idea for PACE as chief of staff to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, in 2007, was guardedly optimistic. “We got our start fighting things. Saying no,” he said. “Now, we’re fighting for what we think is the yes. That is a remarkable transformation.”

“The challenge here is that we are de-funding the things that need to be funded to make this happen. I don’t just mean the subsidies and incentives. We can see the end of federal subsidies. State subsidies are winding down for solar. We have an aging grid. Our job now is to be on offense because over the next few years circumstances will intervene.”

“On its own trajectory, it’s probably not going to get there,” DeVries said.
Yes, parts of BASE 2020 are audaciously ambitious. But we need audaciously ambitious plans, if only to shatter the conventional wisdom. Writer and futurist Alex Steffen tweeted yesterday that “if ‘everyone knows’ a solution’s ‘politically impossible’ no one thinks it’s credible, whatever its actual merits or realism.” I think he’s right. Roadmaps like  BASE 2020 offer political leaders a vision of the clean energy future that could be, if they choose to make it so.

Environmentalists burned by rush to build big solar

While the story focuses on California, it applies equally to the San Luis Valley in Colorado....

Environmentalists feeling burned by rush to build solar projects

Local activists say national groups, focused on renewable energy, ignore projects' threat to the Mojave.

Ileene Anderson, left, of the Center for Biological Diversity and April Sall of the Wildlands Conservancy, standing in the Mojave Desert near Death Valley, are worried about solar projects’ effect on local ecosystems. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / March 20, 2012)

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Calif. — April Sall gazed out at the Mojave Desert flashing past the car window and unreeled a story of frustration and backroom dealings.

Her small California group, the Wildlands Conservancy, wanted to preserve 600,000 acres of the Mojave. The group raised $45 million, bought the land and deeded it to the federal government.

The conservancy intended that the land be protected forever. Instead, 12 years after accepting the largest land gift in American history, the federal government is on the verge of opening 50,000 acres of that bequest to solar development.

Even worse, in Sall's view, the nation's largest environmental organizations are scarcely voicing opposition. Their silence leaves the conservancy and a smattering of other small environmental organizations nearly alone in opposing energy development across 33,000 square miles of desert land.

"We got dragged into this because the big groups were standing on the sidelines and we were watching this big conservation legacy practically go under a bulldozer," said Sall, the organization's conservation director. "We said, 'We can't be silent anymore.' "

Similar stories can be heard across the desert Southwest. Small environmental groups are fighting utility-scale solar projects without the support of what they refer to as "Gang Green," the nation's big environmental players.

Local activists accuse the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, the Wilderness Society and other venerable environmental groups of acquiescing to the industrialization of the desert because they believe large-scale solar power is essential to slowing climate change.

Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, a small public lands watchdog group, said Gang Green's members are compliant in order to make themselves more inviting to major foundations. In recent years, grants for projects focusing on climate change and energy have become the two top-funded issues in environmental philanthropy. Foundations have awarded tens of millions of dollars in grants to environmental groups that make renewable energy a top priority.

"It's not that they solely and directly make decisions based on funding, but they keep their eyes open to what foundations want," Blaeloch said.

As a result, "you've got enviros exactly where industry wanted them to be," she said.

Big environmental organizations say they have agonized over how to approach the issue. They acknowledge that development can have irreversible effects on ecosystems. But they are reluctant to stand in the way of renewable energy projects they regard as a vital response to climate change, which they consider the nation's most serious environmental challenge.

The Sierra Club, NRDC and Defenders of Wildlife filed suit last week to stop the troubled Calico solar project northeast of Los Angeles. But for the most part the big players have embraced solar development.

Instead of following the old adversarial formula of saying no to everything, they have adopted an approach they call, "Getting to yes."

'Green halo' effect

Grass-roots groups say that strategy has failed to protect the desert. What's worse, they say, is that the imprimatur of such groups as the Sierra Club has provided a '"green halo" to energy companies and the government — making it easy for them to ignore local environmental concerns.

Two major projects underway in the Mojave illustrate the divide between local and national groups.

Desert activists vigorously oppose the BrightSource Energy project in the east Mojave's Ivanpah Valley and NextEra's Genesis solar plant 20 miles west of Blythe. National groups have not mounted a strong challenge to either project.

When BrightSource was planning the Ivanpah installation, the big environmental players urged the firm to move the bulk of the project closer to Interstate 5 to avoid prime habitat for the desert tortoise, a protected species. The company responded by reducing its total footprint by 12%, which didn't solve the problem.

After construction began, large numbers of desert tortoises were discovered. According to federal biologists, BrightSource is now responsible for relocating and caring for 95% of all the tortoises expected to be found on all solar project sites in the Mojave.

Some rank-and-file Sierra Club members had wanted to sue to stop the project altogether, but the group's national board of directors vetoed that proposal in favor of a more neutral approach.

Separately, the Sierra Club has scolded some in the Southern California desert chapters for opposing solar projects. The national office issued a 42-page directive laying out the organization's policy regarding renewable energy and instructed local chapters to fall in line.

"It was pretty clear that the national club policy was to foster large-scale solar," said longtime Sierra Club member Joan Taylor. "I don't know how many times I've heard that building solar in the desert is going to save the world."

The NRDC's involvement at Ivanpah was constrained by a conflict of interest: NRDC senior attorneyRobert F. KennedyJr. is a BrightSource investor.

Abandonment urged

On the Genesis project, the Sierra Club and others met with NextEra executives and urged the company to abandon its plans for the site out of concern that

it is too close to a wilderness area. In addition, local groups warned the developer that the site contained sensitive cultural resources.

The project went ahead, only to become embroiled in controversy over the discovery of Native American cultural artifacts that halted construction on one-fifth of the site.

The Interior Department's plan to open a vast swath of desert to solar energy is another instance local activists say demonstrates the ineffectiveness of Big Green's approach.

In late 2010, environmental groups worked with energy companies and the government on a policy that restricted development to 677,000 acres in designated solar zones. Environmentalists left the table believing Interior would refine the agreement to even further reduce the land open to development.

Instead, not long after that compromise, Interior said 21 million acres would be available for development through a variance process, a change that no one in the environmental community supported. If the plan is approved as expected, the nation's leading environmental groups will have been outflanked by solar developers.

"The Sierra Club and the NRDC — their mission is to work on climate change" above all else, Sall said. "We refuse to compromise on that level."

The smaller groups have formed their own alliance, Solar Done Right, that supports renewable energy in previously disturbed or low-conflict lands. "We can have renewable energy — we can have tons of it — and we can do it in all the right ways," Sall said.

The Sierra Club's Barbara Boyle, senior lead for energy issues, said she understands the frustration of smaller groups. "I can appreciate that it doesn't seem that we have gotten what we want out of the process yet," she said.

Asked if the big players had been outmaneuvered by solar developers, Boyle said, "That's always possible."

But she said her 30 years of working for environmental causes have taught her that "the way that we win is through incremental progress."

"I have faith that we are going to get this right in the end," Boyle said. "We have made some mistakes, and that's really difficult. But it's not just any kind of development that we are working on here. We feel the urgency of getting as much renewable energy in California as soon as we can."

Leading environmental organizations fiercely dispute suggestions that they are influenced by major donors. But on solar development, they are fending off perceptions.

'Big Solar' proposal

Four years ago, the director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento wrote a document called "Big Solar." The proposal by V. John White was a pitch for solar developers to hire his company to help roll out projects.

White is a former lobbyist for the Sierra Club and the NRDC. He also lobbies and consults for energy companies.

White wrote that developers could get cooperation from environmental groups by creating a $500,000 grant-making fund. The money ostensibly was for campaigns to tout the virtues of solar power, but the implication was unmistakable:

Give money to co-opt Big Green.

In the memo, White singled out two organizations — the Sierra Club and the NRDC — for grants. White says the fund was never created. But the strategy, coming from a former environmental lobbyist, raised the antennae of critics and invited scrutiny of funding sources.

The Energy Foundation is among the major funders of environmental groups today. It receives its money from large endowments, although not from the energy industry, and makes grants to further the goal of renewable energy. Over the last five years, the foundation has made $150 million in grants for renewable energy efforts, including $8.5 million to the NRDC and $6.2 million to the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club's zeal to eliminate coal-fired power plants led it to praise natural gas as an acceptable "bridge fuel." Club officials rewrote their gift acceptance policy when it was discovered that from 2007 to 2010 the organization accepted $26 million from individuals with or subsidiaries of Chesapeake Energy, one of the country's largest natural gas companies.

At the NRDC, public lands attorney Johanna Wald bristled at the suggestion that she or the organization has taken it easy on solar projects in return for grant money.

"It's ridiculous," Wald said. "I'm working around the clock on these issues. I couldn't be bought off, I haven't been bought off and I won't be bought off."

White has become something of a kingmaker in California on renewable energy, deciding who will represent environmental interests on various planning groups overseeing renewable energy development.

Every appointee he has chosen came from a major environmental group that supports most solar development.

As insiders in the process, Gang Green has framed the issues, Sall said, "basically saying we have to pave over huge areas of the West with solar or we are all going to burn up with climate change."

"That set a tone that we still have not overcome."