Governor of California Underestimates Rooftop Solar in Statement

The Governor of California last week repeated his support for destructive solar facilities on desert wildlands in a statement filed with an inter-agency group tasked with developing a conservation plan for California's treasured deserts.  The paper probably represents the Governor's attempt to argue for large solar in the desert at a time when distributed generation (local clean energy, such as rooftop solar) is making strides as a more efficient and sustainable path.  Although the document was carefully worded not to ignore distributed generation as part of the solution, on balance it implies that large scale projects in the desert are a necessity because distributed generation cannot be deployed fast enough to meet California's renewable energy demand.

The Governor's office subtly distorts the facts in order to exaggerate the need for the controversial destruction of ecologically intact desert lands for large solar facilities.   In a single paragraph describing the future of large solar on desert lands, the document asserts that these projects can be permitted without "undue delay."  Yet the Governor uses nearly 3 pages to describe "hurdles" for distributed generation. According to the statement:
"Utility scale projects, many of them located in the California desert, are likely to provide much of the generation available to meet California's 33% requirement for utility sales of electricity from renewables sources to consumers. "
"Current barriers to DG [distributed generation], while they are surmountable, likely will require a patient and measured timetable for achievement of the Governor's DG goal."
Rooftop Solar Too Slow?
Distributed generation is thriving in California, and across the country, despite the hurdles that Governor Brown uses to justify destroying our desert wildlands.  With the right policies (PACE loans and healthy feed-in-tariffs) this sector can grow even more.  According to the California Solar Initiative, over 600 MW of rooftop solar has already been installed, with hundreds of megawatts of projects in the works.  Sungevity, a California-based company that installs rooftop solar has expanded sales 10-fold since January, and tripled its employment.  Wal-Mart is adding rooftop solar to over 60 stores in California, following the lead of Kohl's department stores (over 100 solar-powered stores nationwide), and Chipotle restaurants.   Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in rooftop solar businesses, according to a renewable energy reporter. 

The Governor's statement goes on to imply that rooftop solar cannot meet all of our renewable energy need.  The paper devotes a whole section to shadows and rooftop angles, concluding that "[m]uch of California's roof area is not available for roof top solar."  Apparently Governor Brown is ignoring a UCLA study that found enough rooftops compatible for solar in Los Angeles to meet the city's demand, or research conducted by Energy Self Reliant States that sees enough room for local clean energy in our cities.

The rooftop solar market is booming, but it is not the only smart solution to cutting greenhouse gasses.  Energy conservation is also making strides, with technology and materials that make our homes and businesses more efficient.  An energy efficiency program in Los Angeles is expected to save the city up to 10 million dollars, create hundreds of jobs, and reduce carbon emissions by 40,000 tons.

Desert Solar More Efficient?
The Governor's office quotes statistics provided by the industry to argue that building solar facilities in the middle of the desert is more efficient.  According to the report, solar panels installed in some cities may be 13% less efficient at generating energy because of lower solar intensity.  The Governor's office copied this argument from testimony written by BrightSource Energy's lawyers to justify a solar facility that has already displaced or killed up to 130 desert tortoises, with that number expected to increase.

What the Governor fails to mention is that facilities built in the middle of the desert require upgraded transmission lines to carry the electricity to the cities.  Not only does this cost the customer (you) more money (one new transmission line will cost $2 billion dollars), it ensures that anywhere from 7-15% of the electricity generated at the facility disappears before it reaches your home in a phenomenon known as transmission line loss.

What the Governor Did Not Mention
You can still build large solar facilities without destroying beautiful desert wildlands.  The Governor's office has not appreciated this distinction in the past, as evidenced by its legal support for BrightSource Energy's solar project in the Ivanpah Valley -- one of the most destructive so far -- and his comments about "crushing" opposition to destructive large solar.  The Westlands area of California consists of already-disturbed land -- previously used for agriculture -- that could support up to 2,700 MW of solar energy.  Solar projects by Beacon Energy and Abengoa are being built on already-disturbed land in Southern California.

The bottom line is that the Renewable Energy Action Team -- the inter-agency body tasked with developing the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan -- should not be fooled by the false dilemma put forward in Governor Brown's statement.  We can generate renewable energy, save money, and create jobs without sacrificing our open spaces in the desert. 

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