Commentary: Path to renewable energy requires care

Community advocates want more focus on distributed solar power generation

Photovoltaic panels at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Editor’s note: Saguache County resident Chuck Tidd delivered this comment at the March 6, 2011 BLM public meeting to gathering public input on the Solar PEIS proposal to open 128,000 acres of public lands in Colorado (mostly in the San Luis Valley) and 22 million acres across six western states, for industrial solar development. Chuck is an off-grid resident, owner of Southern Colorado Appraisal Services and a member of the San Luis Valley Renewable Communities board of directors.

By Chuck Tidd

By putting forward a plan to approve large scale solar developments on BLM land, the BLM is implicitly endorsing an energy paradigm whose time has come to an end.

This is the paradigm of large power generating facilities that transmit the electricity produced over thousands of miles of transmission lines.

This paradigm makes sense when talking about conventional forms of power generation – coal, natural gas, nuclear. But when talking about generating power from sunlight, this paradigm becomes far less efficient. It will destroy intact ecosystems on tens or even hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and it fails to use the built environment for point-of-use energy production.

Not only will the lands on which these projects be affected, but they will mandate the construction of expensive new transmission lines, which are not addressed in the PEIS, further unnecessarily degrading our open space. And who will pay for these expensive boondoggles? Electricity rate payers, that’s who.

Studies have shown that:

a) Constructing energy options at the point of use, known as distributed generation, is more efficient, because the distributed generation option avoids the cost of and transmission losses involved with large-scale remote developments. Based on an Energy Foundation study, there are 35,000 acres of appropriate rooftops in Colorado alone, representing 3,500-4,000 MW, almost double the amount of electricity projected for Colorado under the Zone Alternative.

b) Distributed generation will create more jobs and more long term jobs than costly mega-power projects.

c) Distributed generation can be implemented faster without disturbing carbon sequestering soils, thus getting to the goal of reducing atmospheric CO2 faster.

d) Since distributed generation takes place in the built environment, open lands are protected for other uses.

What is preventing this alternative paradigm from taking root?

First, it’s the policies of so called “public” utilities that are designed to hold rate payers hostage to the greed of shareholders. They maintain rate structures that effectively prevent individuals and businesses from investing in their own power generation.

They are resisting change, as we saw last week when Xcel Energy lobbied and won the rejection of legislation that would have done nothing more than examine the possibility of distributed generation alternatives.

The other trend preventing a more serious consideration of distributed generation is studies from NREL, studies like this one, not to mention short-sighted support from environmental groups that all seek to identify “the best” land areas for solar generation while failing to recognize that virtually the entire nation is suitable for solar power generation.

These attitudes play into the hands of power companies that are seeking to keep power users enslaved to their development plans. On the other hand, take the example of Germany, where insolation is approximately the same as the state of Alaska, and where distributed generation has been enabled by legislation for over a decade.

Today, PV panels can be seen on virtually every building, and Germany will be energy independent by 2020. Meanwhile, we continue to think about how we can most directly reduce our open lands.

To the public utilities present I would like to say, “think out of the box and change your business model”. There is money to be made installing, maintaining, financing and distributing the excess generation of photo voltaic facilities placed on the buildings of companies and private individuals across the nation, while at the same time incentivizing them to use less energy.

To the environmental groups that are failing to recognize that effective distributed generation alternatives are vastly preferable to sacrificing public lands to the machinations of powerful utilities, I say, “shame on you”. You endorsed a similar sacrifice once before with a little dam called Glen Canyon, and we will forever be paying the consequences. Do your homework and get behind the Solar Done Right program that will heal, not harm, rate payers, our economy, and our environment.

Finally, to the BLM representatives gathered here, I want to say, “while the mandate for the PEIS may be the analysis of BLM lands for solar development, in a programmatic EIS it is irresponsible not to include the possibility of more effective alternatives for solar development that do not involve the destruction of public lands”.

I encourage you to include a study of distributed power generation, including the legislative and financial steps that would be necessary to make every building in the US a power generating station. If you do that, I think you’ll come to the conclusion that the alternative is to fully utilize the built environment we begin to build on open land – land that has many other valuable uses.

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