Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sierra Club Starts Local Clean Energy Campaign in Southern California

The Sierra Club initiated a  Local Clean Energy Campaign to encourage public policies that promote investment in distributed generation and energy efficiency programs, which is seen as a positive sign by activists seeking a clean energy future that does not involve the destruction of ecologically intact wildlands for large-scale solar and wind projects.  The nascent effort is currently focusing on coalition building, but intends to reduce barriers to distributed generation and support the Governor of California's goal to build 12,000 megawatts of local renewable energy.  The Sierra Club's campaign adds to a growing chorus of groups and citizens seeking policies that have successfully ramped up local clean energy installations quickly in other countries, such as Germany.

The Local Clean Energy Campaign will advocate for feed-in-tariffs and net metering that fairly compensate rooftop solar owners for the energy they feed back into the grid.  Net-metering is currently capped at 5% of peak demand, and the Sierra Club is asking to increase the cap in order to expand on the success of net-metering.  This will require legislation that benefits citizens and communities, but may irk utility companies who profit the most from destructive large-scale facilities (big solar, wind, natural gas, and coal facilities), and costly transmission lines.

Distributed generation not only helps communities generate clean energy free of the pollution emitted by natural gas or coal plants, but it invests in the community, and brings a new perspective to energy use and efficiency to residents.  Just as community gardens and farmer's markets can encourage healthier eating and smarter agriculture, distributed generation and net-metering can raise awareness about our energy habits and where that energy is coming from.  We can also create a sustainable source of local jobs and increase home values, according to a study by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Rooftop solar is sometimes perceived as a luxury, even though median income zip codes areresponsible for the highest adoption of rooftop solar installations in California.  Rooftop solar is about energy democracy, and the goal is to make distributed solar generation accessible to all.  With that, the Sierra Club campaign intends to involve low-income and people of color communities.  The rooftop solar installations at the Maplewood Homes -- affordable housing provided by the Housing Authority of the County of San Bernardino  -- will save residents there nearly 30% a year on electricity costs, for example.  Renters may also have an opportunity to tap into local clean energy sources with solar gardens, or other types of community choice aggregation.

A solar panel installation atop Maplewood Homes in San Bernardino, California.  Photo by HelioPower.
Another example of solar for the people and by the people that I love is Solar Mosaic.  One of their current projects is to fund and install solar panels on the home of a Navajo artist, whose home overlooks the Peabody coal mine in Arizona.  What an ironic contrast of energy models -- a coal mine destroying the beautiful Black Mesa in Arizona's wildlands, going out of style as solar panels make energy clean, local, and democratic.

Distributed generation is our energy future. We may have some barriers to take down, but other municipalities and countries have already shown the way.  Germany installed over 7500 megawatts of mostly distributed solar last year alone, and the cost per watt of local clean energy there has come down so much that the per watt price would make solar cheap enough for 47 million Americans to afford, according to Energy Self-Reliant States.  Italy is quickly outpacing Germany in their rate of solar installations, and there are over 500,000 homes with solar panels in Australia.  Utility companies should smell trouble, and ordinary citizens should see opportunity.

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