Below is a sneek preview of Bill Powers and Sheila Bowers essay in the Foundation for Deep Ecology's new book, Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth to be released later this month.
Industrial-scale wind and solar power projects can produce significant
quantities of renewable energy, but distributed renewable energy
generation—particularly rooftop photovoltaic installations—can achieve the same
objective much faster without the environmental harm and at lower cost. With
state and federal policies that favor distributed energy, the U.S. could
greatly expand the direct involvement of individuals and communities in
renewable power generation.
Distributed electricity generation (local, decentralized energy production) has the potential to radically alter America’s energy landscape. Our current energy mix is dominated by large, remote, centralized power facilities such as nuclear, gas, and
coal-fired power plants, as well as massive wind farms and transmission
infrastructure. Today, improved technologies, environmental and economic
concerns, and a recognition of the vulnerabilities in large centralized power
production make distributed generation coupled with efficiency upgrades a
viable and, in fact, preferable alternative. Every properly situated building,
parking lot, and brownfield (disused, contaminated land) in our communities can
potentially become a producer of energy.
Distributed generation most commonly involves solar photovoltaic (PV), but can also include small hydroelectric, small-scale biomass facilities, and micro-wind. There are
several advantages to distributed generation when good policies are
Foremost is that the bulk of the economic benefits of widely distributed, locally controlled, and locally produced clean energy can go directly to ratepayer-generators and property owners through mechanisms such as the feed-in tariff, a generous per-kilowatt-hour payment made to ratepayers who generate clean power on their homes and businesses. Additionally, distributed energy generators often enjoy substantial improvements in property values, according to the Appraisal Institute.
Remote, centralized power production and its associated transmission are substantially more vulnerable to major electrical shutdowns from earthquakes, hurricanes, fires,
wind, ice, human error, cyberattack, or terrorism than distributed generation
(which connects to the local power grid). Because of local redundancies and
geographic diversity, a well-designed local grid with distributed power
production and adequate storage can reliably provide critical energy in times
of storms or emergencies with less disruption and pollution than conventional
solutions. Perhaps most importantly, millions of acres of healthy, intact
ecosystems are left undisturbed when generation is sited within the built
Distributed energy production also makes multiple uses of urban and suburban landscapes, including rooftops, and can provide incentives to remediate brownfields that would otherwise blight neighborhoods for decades. Solar photovoltaic sited within the built environment, as well as properly-sited micro-wind power, can be deployed
without disrupting natural communities; without government using its powers of
eminent domain; without depleting scarce groundwater; without destroying
viewsheds and recreation areas; and without the waste and destruction that has
become the hallmark of the energy industry.
Because distributed energy can be locally produced, locally owned, and locally consumed—bringing both economic benefits and jobs to communities—there is typically less local
opposition to implementing distributed energy projects than to building (and
financing) centralized, large-scale power projects. Large-scale renewable
energy projects—such as most proposed solar power plants and industrial wind
generation sited in remote locations—represent a continuation of the old
paradigm of large-scale industrial development, owned and controlled by
monopoly interests which externalize the majority of their costs onto
ratepayers, taxpayers, and the environment while privatizing the profits. In
contrast, small-scale projects are often strongly supported by local
communities. San Francisco recently pledged to procure 100 percent of its
electricity from local renewable energy, as has a growing collection of
Finally, distributed energy is already technologically feasible, even more so when coupled with efficiency upgrades and passive heating/cooling systems for buildings. Energy consulting giant KEMA recently reported that the California grid is capable of
very substantial increases in local solar generation without expensive grid
Distributed Solar Power: Running the Numbers
When all costs are factored in—including new transmission infrastructure and line/heat
losses—local, distributed solar PV is comparable in efficiency, faster to bring
online, less destructive, and less expensive than remote utility-scale solar
Net energy output of rooftop solar is comparable to utility-scale desert solar
"Higher solar insolation,” meaning higher solar radiant energy, is the most common reason touted for siting utility-scale solar projects in locations like the Mojave
Desert. However, transmission losses largely negate the benefits of such remote
projects compared to the slightly lower solar insolation of ratepayer regions
like Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego (which are required to purchase the
solar power). Power transmission losses average 7.5 percent to 14 percent in
California; but the difference in solar insolation between the Mojave and
Southern California urban centers is approximately 10 percent. This means there
is no substantial difference in the net electric power delivered to customers
from remote utility-scale solar plants in remote Mojave Desert locations and
rooftop PV installations in Riverside or Los Angeles, for projects with the same
Urban rooftop solar has another distinct advantage: Desert solar production drops precipitously at higher temperatures, when power is needed most, because both PV and air-cooling are less effective at high temperatures.
Rooftop solar is faster to implement
Large-scale remote solar projects and related transmission lines take many years to permit and complete. In contrast, distributed PV can be brought online very quickly.
Germany, using a simple and effective feed-in tariff contract structure to spur
cost-effective development of distributed PV, installed 7,400 MW of distributed
PV in 2010 alone, 80 percent of it locally owned and sited within the built
environment—a 75 percent increase from 2009. These results are consistent with
previous years, and compare very favorably to the less than 900 MW of PV
installed in the US in 2010, a country with a population roughly 3.5 times as
Rooftop solar is a more economically sound investment
California’s Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative reported that, in comparing May 2010 prices for solar thermal and PV, the latter had a cheaper cost per megawatt
hour of electricity production. Solar photovoltaic prices have dropped
substantially since then, while solar thermal costs have risen or remained
static. This reality is reflected in the shift, en masse, by utility-scale solar developers away from thermal projects and towards PV, the exact technology that is used for distributed generation.
In late 2011 the residential rooftop solar consolidator 1 Block Off the Grid reported actual installed costs (prior to any rebates, tax credits, or other incentives) at
$4.18 per watt in New Jersey. Installed PV system costs in other areas of the
country, from Massachusetts to California, are less than $5 per watt, and both
the California Energy Commission and the Department of Energy project that
solar PV prices will drop by half between 2010 and 2020, while solar thermal
prices are projected to decline much more gradually, if at all.
A study done by the Los Angeles Business Council and the University of California – Los
Angeles estimated that there may be enough rooftops in Los Angeles County
suitable for solar to produce roughly 19,000 MW. The study also found that
there is at least 3,300 MW of rooftop solar currently “economically available”
for German-style feed-in tariffs for the City of Los Angeles alone, and
estimated that their proposed 600 MW feed-in tariff program would create more
than 11,000 local jobs. The feed-in tariffs required to provide a fair return
on investment for ratepayer-generators would cost ratepayers very little. The
study projected an average monthly additional cost of only $0.48 per month for
households and $9.37 per month for businesses for the first ten years of the program,
after which point ratepayers would enjoy lower electricity bills than if
they had remained with conventional energy.
New transmission infrastructure needed to carry utility-scale solar-generated energy from remote locations to urban demand centers also entails substantial
costs that distributed generation does not. These costs are ultimately borne by
ratepayers, with actual costs for new California transmission lines currently
running at approximately $11 million to $24 million per mile.
In addition, rooftop solar creates local, well-paid, long-term jobs; substantially improves property values; encourages energy conservation; and, when supported by
common-sense mechanisms such as feed-in tariffs, slows the outflow of cash to
utilities, keeping money in communities.
Industrial solar enjoys enormous subsidies and externalized costs
Large-scale remote solar projects enjoy a number of direct and indirect subsidies that are not available to the ratepayer-generator, putting the latter at an enormous
disadvantage. These often include federal cash grants and very low-interest
loans and loan guarantees; exclusive use of public lands, water, and resources
otherwise designated for multiple uses; waivers of millions of dollars in
application fees; extremely high Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) prices; and
externalization of many types of costs onto local communities, ratepayers and
Rooftop solar reduces greenhouse gas emissions faster and more effectively
Unlike energy systems in the “concrete jungle” ecosystem, large, remote solar projects
permanently reduce natural uptake of carbon by the ecosystems cleared for
development, while also releasing the carbon dioxide that had been sequestered
by them. Researchers at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas have been monitoring
carbon uptake in Mojave Desert ecosystems for several years and have
consistently found substantial sequestration of carbon. Likewise, wetland and
grassland ecosystems such as those found in Colorado’s San Luis Valley (targeted
for industrial solar development) are well-known for their ability to uptake
and store carbon dioxide. More study is needed to determine how much carbon
uptake will be lost when hundreds of thousands of acres of natural desert cover
are converted to scraped earth and covered with solar collectors, but it is
safe to assume that it is more than “none” which is the case with distributed
Jumpstarting solar PV
Distributed generation, supported through feed-in tariffs, Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loan financing, and greatly expanded net metering would be more
effective than remote utility-scale solar in producing reliable, affordable,
non-destructive renewable energy and addressing the climate crisis. Feed-in
tariffs are proven to work quickly, economically, and reliably; they provide a
simple contract mechanism for individual homeowners and business owners to
profitably install as much solar PV as their buildings/properties will allow,
maximizing the potential of rooftops, parking areas, and brownfields in urban
and suburban environments. Even as its solar PV tariffs shrink, Germany
continues to increase the amount of PV installed—largely because of the rapid
decline in the cost of PV systems, which is built into the design of the
feed-in tariffs. Thanks to these effective cost-reduction policies, it is
currently less expensive, on a per-watt-installed basis, to install a custom,
small, rooftop solar system in Germany than it is to install a giant,
ground-mounted desert solar installation in the U.S., despite economies of
A growing body of research and analysis favorably demonstrates the economic,
environmental, and community benefits of local distributed energy compared to
remote utility-scale energy of all types. With policies that favor distributed
clean energy generation and efficiency, the U.S. could avoid the elevated
economic and ecological costs of remote utility-scale power development,
preserve critical wildlife habitat, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create
jobs, and gain significant economic benefits for local residents, businesses
About the authors
Sheila Bowers is a citizen activist with solardoneright.org. For several years she has been researching the economic, political, and legal biases that promote industrial-scale energy development while artificially impeding the growth of environmentally sound distributed generation.
Bill Powers is the principal of Powers Engineering, an air quality consulting engineering firm established in San Diego in 1994. He is a respected analyst on issues relating to electrical transmission, power plant emissions, and permitting.
Sunday, September 30, 2012
Friday, September 7, 2012
The Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) says that the nations' electrical future may well belong to distributed generation such as rooftop solar rather than central power stations and generators far from demand, such as public lands solar and wind.
FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghof made the remarks yesterday at a media event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "It's going to be a race between the two types of renewable resources," Wellinghof said at the event, hosted by The Energy Daily. "Right now, I'd put my money on distributed resources."
Wellinghof pointed out that distributed generation, largely in the form of photovoltaic panel installations, accounts for several gigawatts nationwide of new power generating capacity installed in 2011 alone, and that installations are climbing by 40% a year. "If that keeps accelerating," Wellinghof told Jonathan Crawford at SNL Energy Company Research, "then that's going to diminish the amount of central station-type renewables we need, and diminish the amount of transmission we need."
Reducing the country's dependence on centralized power generation and transmission is a bit of a hot button issue for Wellinghof, who has repeatedly criticized the vulnerability of the grid he oversees to sabotage and terrorist attack. Zack Colman at The Hill reports that the grid's cybersecurity was on Wellinghof's mind at the National Press Club event. "Nobody has adequate authority with respect to both the electric and the gas infrastructure in this country regarding known vulnerabilities," Colman quotes Wellinghoff as saying. "If I had a cyber threat that was revealed to me in a letter tomorrow, there is little I could do the next day to ensure that that threat was mitigated effectively by the utilities that were targeted."
Distributed generation reduces the grid's vulnerability by reducing the potential number of single points of failure that would affect wide areas, a vulnerability of which Southern Californians may well recall a recent example. The more small power sources the grid possesses, and the fewer single-link transmission lines it relies on, the more resistant it will be to disruption either accidental or deliberate.