Saturday, June 29, 2013

More Destruction Looms Over Ivanpah

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is working on the final environmental impact statements for two more solar projects in the Mojave's Ivanpah Valley, which straddles the California and Nevada border, and the documents are expected to be released this summer.  BrightSource Energy's destructive Ivanpah Solar project is nearing completion there, but First Solar's proposed Stateline and Silver State South solar projects would destroy another eight square miles of intact desert ecosystem, with the most appalling destruction to occur at the 4.8 square mile Silver State South solar site. 

I hope at least one of the projects will canceled altogether or at least substantially trimmed down.  First Solar's reputation as a steward of the environment is at stake, and the company has no reason to ignore Fish and Wildlife Service concerns; the company has successfully built large projects on already-disturbed lands with minimized environmental impacts.  These Ivanpah projects will be a mistake, but it is not clear the company recognizes the damage they may cause.

According to public comments made available by the BLM, a coalition of environmental groups (Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC, and the Sierra Club) asked First Solar to consider modifying the layout of the Stateline solar project site to avoid high quality tortoise habitat further from the dry lake bed.  It is not clear if First Solar or the BLM will consider another alternative for the project, but Stateline could put some tortoises displaced by the BrightSource Energy project in double jeopardy. 

The map below was submitted by the coalition of environmental groups to the BLM.  The red outline is the proposed slimmer project footprint that is assessed to avoid the higher quality tortoise habitat.
Over forty comments, many from readers of this blog, requested the BLM consider a more robust conservation alternative to both the Stateline Solar and Silver State South projects.  The conservation comments echoed concerns expressed by the Fish and Wildlife Service with regard to industrial-scale development in the Ivanpah Valley and the impact the destruction would have on desert tortoise habitat connectivity.  In its own comments, the Environmental Protection Agency rated the Draft EIS as not containing sufficient information.

This photo was taken from Metamorphic Hill in the Ivanpah Valley, and shows much of the creosote scrub habitat that would be destroyed for the Stateline Solar project in California.
The Fish and Wildlife Service submitted substantial comments to the BLM regarding the Draft Supplemental EIS for the Silver State South solar project, recommending the No Action alternative, and suggesting BLM extend the proposed Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) to protect the fragile tortoise habitat linkage.  The BLM's preferred alternative would have only left an insignificant habitat connectivity corridor between the Silver State South project and the Lucy Gray Mountains, which do not provide suitable habitat for the tortoise.

A cluster of Mojave yucca on the site of the proposed Silver State South project site in Nevada.

Solar University

I was reading about NRG Energy, whose CEO has spoken enthusiastically about the potential of distributed generation, and came across a fairly impressive array of solar on rooftops and over parking lots that the company has installed. Although I disagree with the company's investment in the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the distributed generation project at Arizona State University is proof of the clean energy we can generate in our cities.  ASU's facilities boast over 20 megawatts of solar panels, and they plan to expand to 25 megawatts.  You can even monitor real time generation statistics at the campus' website.

[click on image to expand] The orange borders highlight buildings with rooftop solar. Other buildings with rooftop solar are in the area, but the image would have less detail if I zoomed out enough to capture  them.  Good job, ASU!
Back in my own hometown of Victorville, Victor Valley College recently received an award for its own solar installations over parking lots and on already-disturbed lands.  The efficiency and solar investments have so far yielded an annual savings on utility bills of 500 thousand dollars.  The college is also taking out water guzzling lawns and replacing them with turf.  

Elsewhere in the world of distributed generation, SunRun received over 630 million dollars in financing for rooftop solar projects, bringing its total project commitments to over two billion dollars.  Other rooftop solar leasing companies are also doing well. Solar City received over 500 million dollars of financing in May, and the company also announced plans to launch a battery storage option for rooftop solar users in the next couple of years.  What this means is that rooftop solar users could avoid hostile utilities by not bothering with net metering, and keep any excess energy for use at night.

And by now you've probably heard the good news about Los Angeles officially launching its feed-in-tariff program with a new rooftop solar array in North Hollywood.  I think we all wish the FiT rates were more robust (over 20 cents per kilowatt-hour), but it's good to see at least one utility company expanding (instead of opposing) local solar.  The program will support 150 MW of rooftop solar, but the new Los Angeles may plans to expand this to 600 MW.  Hopefully that is still just the beginning.

In Colorado, the Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center released "A Million Solar Roofs for Colorado" report in late June.  The report notes that if solar panels were installed on all of the suitable and appropriate rooftops in Colorado, the state could generate over 16,000 MW of clean energy.  The report notes that generating 3,000 MW through rooftop solar is feasible by 2030 with the right incentives, which would cover roughly half of Colorado utility Xcel Energy's peak summer demand.  Colorado's utilities are heavily dependent on coal and natural gas, so a significant expansion of distributed generation would kick out fossil fuels and reduce the need for peaking plants.

Senator Udall of Colorado endorsed the Million Solar Roofs initiative, and also reintroduced the Solar Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) Act, which would make Federal energy tax credits available to communities who invest in a local solar project.

Distributed generation is on a roll.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How To Avoid An Ecological Disaster While Solving Another

President Obama announced today his administration's Climate Action Plan, which includes a long overdue directive to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to complete carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, calls for improving vehicle fuel economy standards,  and raising the bar for energy efficiency in our homes and businesses.  All of these are urgent and smart ways to fix our destructive energy paradigm.  In a surprisingly positive shift,  the President also signaled that he may not approve the Keystone oil pipeline if it results in a net increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the President also outlined plans for continued utility-scale renewable energy expansion; these plans must be reconciled with his administration's unfortunately overlooked effort to protect wildlands and wildlife.  The Climate Action Plan only vaguely refers to the fairly comprehensive National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy released by the Department of Interior in March,  and does not explain how utility-scale energy development goals will be achieved without committing some of the same ecological mistakes of the previous five years. 

The Adaptation Strategy stresses the importance of maintaining habitat linkages, and includes as one of the recommended actions that renewable energy development should be focused on already-disturbed or degraded lands (Action 7.1.8).   The administration's Climate Action Plan briefly discusses the need to conserve "land and water resources," but emphasizes preserving forests for their value in absorbing our carbon mess, as Chris Clarke points out on ReWire.  Our efforts to protect the environment should not be limited only to those steps that achieve practical or functional benefits to human society, because no law or public comment opportunity can adequately capture the value of pristine wildlands.

Fast-track past wildlife concerns

The Climate Action Plan directs the Department of Interior to approve 10,000 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale renewable energy on public lands by 2020, but the plan provides no mention of how to accommodate such an expansive industrialization in a responsible fashion, nor does it mention the extensive potential to incentivize the siting of these facilities on already-disturbed or degraded private lands.

The Climate Action Plan proudly boasts that the administration approved dozens of solar, wind, and geothermal projects on public lands since 2009.   The solar and wind projects account for the bulk of energy generation capacity, and if all were built they would destroy at least 308 square miles of intact ecosystems - an area greater than New York City - and generate 12,231 MW.   The BLM counts projects that are being built on private or state land that require a transmission right-of-way or other connected action on public lands; these projects account for 2,161 MW of the total 12,204 MW, but these projects' acreage are not included in the total 308 square miles.  Anybody familiar with the fast-track approval of these projects is aware that many were approved despite being proposed for important habitat that wildlife will need to maintain resilience in the face of climate change's broader impacts, as highlighted in the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.

If the President has his way with the Climate Action Plan, he is likely to approve the destruction of roughly another 300 square miles on public lands, compounding other ecological stresses placed on the landscapes.  The move would also deprive us of even more ridge lines and valleys that we currently cherish because they offer places for solitude and peace where human use is not the dominant feature.  Assuming over 600 square miles of projects are approved and built by 2020 (including those already approved sine 2009), it is difficult to imagine how many habitat linkages and beautiful vistas will be destroyed.

Get Serious About Sustainable Energy

Adjusting Our Utility-Scale Approach
The President should reconsider his dependence on public lands to shoulder the burden of our energy demands, and instead direct tax incentives and Department of Energy programs to promote renewable energy on already-disturbed lands with minimal environmental conflicts.  These projects already account for the bulk of our online utility-scale solar generation, and as long as they can respect the communities in which they are built, they often face fewer hurdles.  Over 1,000 megawatts of solar projects on degraded lands are already completed or under construction in California and Arizona, with hundreds of megawatts in the pipeline.

The Obama administration could also give a boost to EPA's  RE-Powering America's Land, which has identified degraded lands ideal for renewable energy development.   If the President ignores these alternatives to siting on public lands, he should at least consider a more serious and science-based evaluation of our southwestern desert ecosystems (perhaps modeled on the DRECP), with a commitment to substantial conservation designations consistent with the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.

Tapping the Distributed Generation Potential
The President should also greatly expand his administration's support for rooftop solar.  The Climate Action Plan includes a relatively sad commitment to add 100 MW of rooftop solar to the federally subsidized housing stock by 2020.  He could expand on this rooftop solar goal without Congressional action by asking the Federal Housing Finance Agency to reconsider its opposition to Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), a tool that allows property owners to finance efficiency or rooftop solar projects and pay the capital costs back over time through their own property tax bill. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have implemented PACE programs, but the FHFA will not allow homeowners with FHFA-backed mortgages to take advantage of them.

We could also double down on loan guarantees and incentives for larger rooftop solar projects on commercial buildings, expanding on the Prologis Project Amp, for example.  Although not as democratic as solar on residential rooftops, large commercial warehouses and big box stores throughout the country offer convenient places for larger solar arrays.

The administration should host a round table of utility regulators and distributed generation experts to identify steps the Federal government can take to encourage broader implementations of feed-in-tariffs (FiTs) for rooftop solar, learning lessons from nascent programs in the United States and successful and longstanding FiTs abroad.  These investments in distributed generation are more efficient than the destructive public lands route Obama outlined in his Action Plan; distributed generation would cut down on the need for new transmission infrastructure, save wildlands, and make are grid less vulnerable to attack.

With more aggressive incentives for distributed generation, and utility-scale projects on already-disturbed lands, we could generate much more than 10,000 megawatts of clean energy at a much lower environmental cost.  In combination with the Climate Action Plan's goals for cutting emissions and improving energy efficiency, getting serious about sustainable clean energy could breathe more compassion and regard for wildlands into our solution to climate change.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Calico Solar Canceled; Mojave Desert Habitat Spared

K Road Solar this week decided to withdraw its application to bulldoze nearly six square miles of desert in the central Mojave Desert.  The company's Calico Solar project has haunted this important swath of desert habitat since 2007 when the project's previous owner first filed plans with the Bureau of Land Management.  The Calico Solar project was among the first in a wave of applications that have begun to fragment and industrialize otherwise intact habitat in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  Citizen conservationists and national environmental groups - including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and Natural Resources Defense Council - opposed the Calico project during environmental review and in court, but the BLM and California Energy Commission still seemed intent on permitting the project.

Much of the desert in this view would have been destroyed to make way for the proposed Calico Solar project.  The Cady Mountains Wilderness Study Area can be seen in the distance.
Word of the cancellation is an exceptional piece of good news as other energy developers continue to bulldoze desert in the Ivanpah Valley, along the Tehachapi mountains, near Joshua Tree National Park, and north of Blythe.   Other industrial-scale solar and wind projects are planned for the north and eastern edges of the Mojave National Preserve, and in the impressive expanse of the Silurian Valley.
Phacelia in bloom on a hilltop overlooking the proposed Calico Solar site in the background. Most of the site is creosote bush scrub habitat at the foot of the Cady Mountains, but further down there is also sand dune habitat that hosts Mojave fringe-toed lizards.
The Calico cancellation, however, is sweetened by another policy that will grant the area some degree of protection.  Although I am critical of the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, the solar development policy that it established does include a provision that will now save the site of the Calico Solar project from future destruction by solar developers.  The solar development policy created thousands of acres of "variance lands" that will allow industrial energy development outside the solar energy zones, but the policy also created "exclusion zones," where solar companies cannot build due to the environmental importance of the land.

The exclusion zones cover much of the desert in the vicinity of the Calico Solar project, but because the Calico Solar project application was filed long before the solar development policy took effect, the BLM would have allowed the company to proceed with construction as a "grandfathered" project.  However, now that K Road is withdrawing the project, the site should now be safe from future ill-sited solar proposals.

[click on image to expand] K Road Solar in 2012 modified the layout of the Calico Solar project in a half-hearted attempt to reduce environmental impacts. The "wildlife connectivity" corridor (bright green) in the center of the project would have provided less than a half sqaure mile of habitat among nearly six square miles of destruction.  The project would still jeopardize rare plants, desert tortoises, burrowing owls, and foraging habitat for bighorn sheep and raptors.
The Calico Solar site hosts an impressive array of wildlife, and boasts spectacular scenery that deserves protection from such large scale land disturbance   Mojave fringe-toed lizards, desert tortoises, burrowing owls, and the rare flowering plant - the white-margined beardtongue - can be found on the site.  Travelling east along the Historic Route 66 coming from Barstow, the expansive creosote scrub habitat at the base of the Cady Mountains serves as an introduction to the open desert mountains and valleys where wild'ness dominates, not human use.  Travelers, hikers, and explorers can enjoy this escape for nearly 125 miles until they reach the outpost of Needles.

A desert tortoise photographed on the site of the proposed Calico Solar project.  Photo from the original draft environmental impact statement for the project.
It's not clear if K Road has plans for other swaths of desert in California, but the company is already bulldozing nearly three square miles of desert for the Moapa Solar project northeast of Las Vegas, and the company's owner is also constructing a  600 MW coal power plant in the Philippines.

Friday, June 21, 2013

BLM Examines Emissions Impacts of Oil Pipeline to Supply Las Vegas

The Bureau of Land Management this week released the draft general conformity determination for Cal Nev Pipeline company's proposed 16 inch diameter oil pipeline that will run from Colton, California through the Mojave Desert and terminate in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The determination assesses the pipeline's "direct and indirect" impacts on air quality standards during construction and operation, but ironically does not evaluate emissions from the actual use of the oil the pipeline will carry.

The new pipeline would run mostly parallel to existing lines and expand the system's carrying capacity by nearly 44,000 barrels per day, bringing the total oil transmission in the Cal Nev Pipeline system to 200,000 barrels per day.  The company says that the new capacity is needed to fuel Las Vegas' tourism industry and McCarran International Airport.  

The new capacity could facilitate an increase in the region's CO2 emissions by 18,920 metric tons per day, based on EPA estimates.   That would be 6,905,000 metric tons of CO2 each year, assuming the pipeline is running at full capacity.  As with the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the environmental analysis completed last year for the Cal Nev Pipeline only considered emissions associated with construction, and not the impacts associated with increasing the supply of oil to be burned.
All air emissions associated with the Proposed Project would occur only during construction, which will occur for a period of approximately one year. In addition, emissions would be localized within the construction area, so would only occur in each specific area for a period of a few days before the construction zone moves on.  - Cal Nev Draft EIS, 2012
Although most of the new pipeline will follow an existing pipeline right of way, the new construction activity will require new or enhanced maintenance roads in the desert and extensive excavation activity.  The pipeline also crosses the Mojave River in a couple of places, and runs not far from riparian habitat near Zzyzx.  It is not clear how extensive contamination would be if the pipeline ruptured near one of these rare desert water sources.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Project Bobcat

You'll notice that I have a new "Take Action to Protect Bobcats" page listed on the tabs underneath the banner photo of this blog.  Residents in Joshua Tree recently became aware that bobcats were being trapped and killed across much of California's deserts for their furs, which are then sold to markets in Russia and China.  The same market forces that lead to ruthless poaching for ivory in other countries is now impacting our deserts by removing a key predator from the ecosystem.  However, in California it is legal to kill as many bobcats as you would like.  This is an outdated policy that could have serious ecological repercussions.

Bobcat in the Mojave. Photo by David McChessney.
The folks organizing to protect these wonderful animals have started Project Bobcat, and they are supporting the Bobcat Protection Act (Assembly Bill 1213) in the California legislature.  This bill, as it currently reads, would make it unlawful to kill bobcats in the area around Joshua Tree National Park,  propose rulemaking to limit bobcat trapping around other refuges and parks, raise licensing fees for bobcat trapping so that such practice is no longer subsidized by the state, and make it unlawful to trap bobcats on private land without the landowners permission.

This bill is up before the Committee on Natural Resources and Water on June 25.  Please call or e-mail the Committee members before June 25 and urge them to support A.B. 1213, the Bobcat Protection Act.  You can visit the Project Bobcat website for more information.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Wolves, Watts and Washington

The past few weeks have brought a depressing onslaught of "more of the same" from Washington, but I will start with a couple nice morsels of good news.  A new report from GTM Research provides some relief in the form of good news on distributed generation.   I'll give you a gist of the research - in the first three months of 2013, the United States added over 405 MW of solar panels to residential and commercial rooftops.   In addition, many of the utility scale projects completed over the past few months probably were built on already-disturbed lands, judging by the report's description of the general sizes and locations of the installations.   It's nice to know that somehow there is a segment of the energy market that is on a sustainable and clean path, and it makes companies that destroy pristine desert habitat look bad (ahem, like BrightSource Energy, K Road, and Next Era).  The report also reiterates that rooftop solar is going to change the way we do business.  “We are on the cusp of a new solar revolution in the U.S., driven by the rapid expansion of distributed generation,” according to Shayle Kann, vice president of research at GTM Research.

Here is another dose of good news before I move on to the less satisfying bits of information.  Newly-appointed Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz plans to increase his Department's focus on energy efficiency.  This is good news because we could  reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and a destructive grid if we take advantage of opportunities to make our homes and businesses more efficient, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  The 30 cities with the most potential energy efficiency savings could cut a combined 261,107 gigawatt hours (GWh).  To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent of shutting down dozens of dirty fossil fuel plants.  That energy savings is also the equivalent of nearly 241 desert-destroying solar projects like BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar facility, which has already decimated 5.6 square miles of pristine Mojave Desert habitat.

What is frustrating is that the good news we receive is always in small morsels, and we cannot expect policymakers to commit to a more sustainable path.  The framework of econimic growth is deeply rooted in the exploitation of our wildlands.   Public lands and wildlife are a currency traded by our policymakers as a favor to big industry, and we are even reminded of that when the White House talks about clean energy.  A White House official expressed concern during a speech in April that  climate and environmental stability are a priority for the White House, but most of the transcript boasts about how the United States has increased oil and gas production; the bulk of the speech discussed fossil fuels in a proud fashion.  This should signal that newly-appointed Secretary Moniz's interest in energy efficiency is unlikely to be the centerpiece of the Obama administration's energy policy;  instead, fossil fuels are likely to reign supreme for decades to come as Washington helps industry invest billions in exploration and extraction of carbon resources.   The White House official's speech makes it clear that we will be a nation hooked on natural gas once we kick our coal habit.  Not long after the speech,  Washington's "Arctic Strategy" was unveiled, and ironically focuses on taking advantage of melting ice caps to find new places to harvest fossil fuels, instead of seeking ways to limit or ban extraction of oil there.

The past few weeks have also shown that Washington makes its decisions affecting wildlands and wildlife after viewing the problem set through the same distorted political prism through which it views its energy decisions; the same prism that led it to permit the southern half of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and allow wind companies to kill California condors and golden eagles.   We received a jolting reminder this past week when the Department of Interior announced plants to strip the gray wolf of endangered species protection, even as local policies have unleashed hunters and trappers against the animal.  We almost drove these creatures extinct, then invested in their recovery, and now we are about to hunt them down again.

This administration lacks an overarching environmental strategy.  It is sadly reactive to many agendas, without an ability to reconcile conflicting principles.  We can create jobs through more natural gas fracking, and we can clean the air by destroying golden eagles and condors. Wolves are a political inconvenience, not a keystone species that we should seek to restore to our wildlands.   But the most obvious indicator of the White House's neglect for sustainability as an overarching framework is the fact that distributed generation and energy efficiency remains a talking point backed up only by weak Federal action. The Federal Housing Finance Agency continues to block property assessed clean energy (PACE), a financing tool for rooftop solar.  Tax credits mostly benefit big utility companies.  New rules favor big transmission infrastructure and the streamlining of corporate destruction of wildlands. 

Many national environmental groups are as reactive and piecemeal in their approach to sustainability as Washington, and their frameworks tend to favor big industry development.  Some have begun to advocate more vocally for distributed generation and energy efficiency, but their primary communications continue to boast about the production tax credit for a wind industry that builds new projects in the way of golden and bald eagles.  Or they express pride in the White House's desire to build even more transmission lines across the country.  All of this plays into industry's continued control of an energy paradigm that will keep us stuck in the past, with a significant and unhealthy dose of fossil fuels.  It will be a tiresome path, but we will need to keep advocating for energy efficiency and distributed generation as the centerpieces of a broader environmental strategy that prioritizes sustainability of our natural resources.  To do so, we will need others to become more aware of their impacts, and aware of the corporate interests that currently dictate policy priorities and set the status quo.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Desert National Wildlife Refuge: Vote for Your Favorite Photo

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge complex is hosting a photo contest, and you can vote for your favorite photo at the contest website.  Check out the photos and show your support!

The Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge on a breezy, chilly day in February.  Ash Meadows is part of the larger Desert National Wildlife Refuge complex in Nevada, and hosts rare desert pupfish and migrating birds.  This photo is not in the refuge photo contest because I missed the deadline :(  but there are plenty of beautiful photos at the contest website!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Utility Company Makeover

David Roberts at Grist has a rather thought-provoking article on how utility companies can be transformed to take advantage of new, cleaner technologies.  Mr. Roberts asserts that distributed generation will not mean the downfall of the grid, but that distributed generation and energy efficiency beg for a new model, one where the utility companies may facilitate an energy marketplace, but do not control the source of energy.  I would recommend reading this in conjunction with an article by High Country News titled "Haywired."  Although a subscription is required for the article, the gist of it is that the transmission system in this country is built around an old paradigm that cannot take advantage of the flexibility offered by clean energy, including rooftop solar.  

Essentially, both articles argue that we need a new energy paradigm.  Utilities want to replace old coal power plants connected to a behemoth transmission line grid with new natural gas and wind facilities plugged into the same grid.  And they will argue that new transmission lines are needed to accomodate all of this new infrastructure.  NREL is quoted in "Haywire" as saying that for every 3 MW of new wind facilities, utilities usually need 2 MW of new natural gas peaker capacity to deal with the intermittency. A Northern Arizona University professor told High Country News points out that breaking down stovepiping in how energy regulators share energy across the national grid, we could cut out such destructive redundancies:
"For renewable energy, it makes zero sense to stay in your small area," says Tom Acker, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northern Arizona University. He compares the utilities' current approach –– building up all their own natural gas reserve plants –– to buying a big SUV for everyday use, even though you really need it only a few days out of the year. Under an EIM [energy imbalance market], a bunch of balancing utilities would be able to share their renewables and that SUV, not to mention the transmission lines. "The progressive way of thinking is to share ... that is absolutely crucial or we'll never get renewable energy into the system."
While "Haywired" argues that breaking stovepipes in the transmission system would make the transition to clean energy more efficient, it is still assuming that we have to stick with a mostly central station model that does not require utility companies to change much about how they do business.  The article mostly argues that utility companies and grid regulators need to cooperate across administrative boundaries to share resources.

But the concept of a windmill or solar panel means that we can generate energy just about anywhere, so we should not be allowing utility companies ot reinforce this same archaic infrastructure.  As storage technologies become more advanced, eventually distributed generation technology will enable even greater independence from the grid because we can store any unused solar energy from the day for use at night.  Will we completely abandon the grid?  Probably not.  But the inherent and proven potential of scalable renewable energy technology (like rooftop solar) means that we can severely undermine a model that allows energy companies to profit at the expense of our wildlands and our climate.

Mr. Roberts helps capture the problem of utility companies clearly in the Grist article:
"You see the simple incentive created by this arrangement.  If the utility sells more kilowatt-hours than expected, it must make more investments, thus increasing its returns. Conversely, if customers start buying fewer kilowatt-hours, the utility risks having its investment costs stranded.

All of the blooming, buzzing innovation happening in distributed energy, at the distribution edge of the grid, is geared toward reducing the kilowatt-hours customers need to buy, through utilities, from distant power plants.  Ergo, distribution-edge innovation and the basic incentive structure of utilities are at odds.  That is the nut of the problem."
Mr. Roberts' article in Grist helps explain how utility companies of the future could look a lot different from today, facilitating instead of blocking adoption of distributed generation.  His article shows more concern than I ever will for utility company profit, and I do not think that preserving the profit of utility companies should be a key driver in how we think about forging a sustainable energy path.  However,  Mr. Roberts' makes a good point that trying to push utility companies off of a centralized and destructive monopoly will require them to imagine how they can still make profit under a new system.  It will be a tough fight, as the passage of SB 123 in Nevada shows.  In order to get a coal plant shut down, Nevadans essentially signed a deal with the devil (NV Energy) that will allow the company to build more transmission lines, natural gas power plants and gas pipelines. 

We can think about how to create incentives for utility companies to transition, but we cannot let them steer the implementation and expect a sustainable outcome.

Nevada Legislature Passes SB 123

The Nevada legislature passed SB 123, which will ultimately shut down the Reid Gardner coal plant and provide relief for the Moapa Band of Paiutes living next to the facility.  The bill also likely locks Nevada into natural gas investments, however.  Although amended since the last time I reviewed the text, the bill that passed the legislature yesterday still requires 550 MW of energy from "other electrical generating plants," in addition to the 350 MW of new renewable energy generation required by the bill.   That 550 MW is likely to be generated by new natural gas facilities, and previous iterations of the bill made it clear that the "other electrical" generation would be natural gas.

It is not a surprise that this passed with bi-partisan support in Nevada given that this bill is a win-win situation for industry.  The bill provides Nevada utilities with a fresh excuse to invest in more infrastructure to support its central station model, including natural gas pipelines and transmission lines.  The legislation will also continue to buoy an abusive relationship between renewable energy and fossil fuels that is encouraged by utility companies -- marrying natural gas facilities to new renewable energy.  Utilities claim natural gas is a necessary "bridge," but once they invest millions of dollars in extraction, pipelines, and power plants, how long do we have to live with the bridge?  All of this typically results in more money for utility companies, more fracking, and more central station renewable energy facilities on wildlands.

That abusive "bridge" relationship can be broken by local clean energy investments that provide more geographic diversity in our energy sources and reduce dependence on central station infrastructure, hopefully breaking the back of a utility paradigm that continues to invest heavily in fossil fuels and the destruction of our landscapes.

You can read SB 123 below.