Wednesday, September 25, 2013

First Solar Supports Utility Company War on Rooftop Solar

First Solar, the company destroying several square miles of desert habitat to build solar facilities on pristine desert wildlands,  sided with utilities companies seeking to limit the expansion of rooftop solar in a regulatory filing this month.  First Solar's move is not surprising because the panels it manufactures and uses at its large solar facilities are not very efficient, and typically are not used in rooftop solar installations.  The company depends on monopolistic utility companies to buy energy from its projects, funds anti-environment politicians, and has insisted on building a large project that biologists have warned will degrade habitat connectivity for the threatened desert tortoise.

First Solar's Silver State North solar project in the foreground, and BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project in the background.  These large projects have destroyed several square miles of intact desert habitat, and required millions of dollars in transmission line upgrades. Both projects received tax incentives from
 But First Solar's move is bold - the company complains that rooftop solar installations place an unfair burden on other ratepayers, ignoring the fact that First Solar executives' pay checks are subsidized by taxpayers; the company's large projects are supported by Federal loan guarantees backed by the taxpayer.   First Solar CEO James Hughes received nearly 11.8 million dollars in salary and stock awards in one year, reaping a substantial profit from the utility companies that he defended in an editorial against rooftop solar.   Nearly every First Solar project requires expensive upgrades to the transmission system that also add to ratepayers' costs.   The company has built its projects on wildlands treasured by the public - including a project near Joshua Tree National Park - a cost that is difficult to quantify.

First Solar's argument against rooftop solar is misleading.  The Arizona Public Service utility company currently credits rooftop customers for energy they feed into the grid at a rate comparable to some utility-scale solar projects. The net metering credit for rooftop solar generators in Arizona is 15.5 cents per kilowatt hour, according to an Arizona newspaper, which is comparable or cheaper than the 15 to 18 cents per kilowatt hour that a California utility is paying for electricity from NRG's large California Valley Solar Ranch, according to the New York Times.  Unfortunately we do not know how much money First Solar receives for each  kilowatt hour of energy its projects produce because the rates are considered confidential business secrets.  What First Solar ignores in its attack on rooftop solar is the fact that rooftop solar add electricity to the grid without destroying open wildlands and alleviate the need for expensive new transmission lines.  When these benefits are factored in, rooftop solar is more economical than large-scale projects, according to a study supported by Vote Solar.

The First Solar filing with the Arizona Corporation Commission also unfairly compares rooftop solar and large-scale solar on a cost per watt basis.  The net metering credit to rooftop solar generators is calculated on a kilowatt-hour basis, not a cost per watt basis; the rooftop solar panel owners only receive a credit for the energy they send to the grid and share with other ratepayers.  Cost per watt, on the other hand, is the amount it costs to install the system - this is not as relevant to the net metering debate.  But even so, the costs to install rooftop solar systems will fall as local permitting costs also fall.  In Germany, which generates thousands of megawatts of clean energy with rooftop solar panels, the cost of a rooftop solar installation is $2.24 per watt - nearly as low as the cost per watt of utility-scale projects cited in First Solar's regulatory filing.

Distributed solar generation systems, like this one at Victor Valley College in California, benefit the customer because they send clean electricity into the grid without requiring ratepayers to pay for large and destructive power plants and transmission lines.
The First Solar filing also argues that utility-scale projects are more efficient because they provide energy that is easier to forecast for utility companies.  The company ignores the fact that rooftop solar makes the grid more resilient by distributing the energy generation across a broad geographic area, decreasing the impact of weather and other environmental factors on overall generation.  First Solar's projects, on the other hand, concentrate panels on a specific swath of land and can experience a significant drop in power production when a cloud hangs overhead.

If First Solar were genuinely concerned about the environment and costs to the community, its actions would match its words.  Instead, First Solar attacks a program that fairly credits rooftop solar generators, builds projects that destroy wildlife habitat, and makes the 1% even richer.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Do We Need Another Transmission Line in the High Desert?

Southern California Edison (SCE) is planning to invest upwards of one billion dollars in new transmission lines through Lucerne Valley, connecting substations in the Barstow area to Hesperia.  Never mind that the utility already has three existing major transmission pathways through the region, in addition to lines owned by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).  SCE argues in its application to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that the "Coolwater-Lugo" transmission upgrade is needed to alleviate a bottleneck on the lines running from Kramer Junction to Hesperia, and to provide interconnection for up to 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy development.

Although some of the new line would run along an existing transmission corridor, the utility would add nearly 15 miles of lines along a new corridor following Barstow Road before veering northwest to join another LADWP corridor, further entangling otherwise scenic desert with industrial-scale development.

If the California Public Utilities Commission put the cost of the new transmission line toward energy efficiency or distributed generation incentives, the line probably would not be necessary.  One billion dollars could buy millions of LED light bulbs or other energy efficiency improvements, equalling an electricity savings that is greater than the added generation SCE foresees flowing through the proposed transmission line.

It is also unclear if the new transmission line can still alleviate much of the bottleneck at Kramer Junction if SCE connects a bunch of utility-scale projects in Lucerne Valley, but the better question is what utility-scale projects does SCE think it will connect with this new line?   Wind and solar projects in the far western Mojave near the Tehachapi Mountains are mostly connecting to separate transmission lines feeding Los Angeles.

The Lucerne Valley and points east of Barstow are unlikely to see a significant expansion in utility-scale projects.  The Granite Mountain Wind project between Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley was cancelled because the project would threaten golden eagles; other wind applications proposed for the area would face a similar challenge.  The Calico Solar project proposed for pristine desert habitat east of Barstow was cancelled, and the area is now a solar exclusion zone.  Most solar projects proposed for the Lucerne Valley area are distributed generation; they are smaller projects that feed the local grid and do not require the new 220 kilo volt lines being proposed by SCE.

At the end of the day, the proposed  Coolwater-Lugo Transmission line through the Lucerne Valley may be an unnecessary cost to ratepayers,  destroy more desert habitat, and add visual blight to a corner of the desert that remains free of transmission lines.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

BrightSource Palen Solar Project Moving Through Environmental Review

The California Energy Commission (CEC) this month published part of its Final Staff Assessment for BrightSource Energy's Palen Solar power project.  After evidentiary hearings this fall, the CEC plans to decide whether to approve the project proposed for the Chuckwalla Valley between Indio and Blythe, resulting in the destruction of up to 5.9 square miles of desert habitat that currently hosts kit foxes, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, and burrowing owls.  Biologists are concerned that the project would not only disrupt sand transport through the valley that sustains fringe-toed lizard habitat, but also pose a collision and burn risk to a variety of birds, from golden eagles to the endangered Yuma clapper rail.
[Click on image to expand] The Palen Solar power project would destroy up to 5.9 square miles of creosote bush and dune habitat. Palen mountains, home to raptor nests, can be seen in this Google Earth image northeast of the project site.
The size of the project is difficult to imagine, so I provide a comparison of the project footprint (red overlay, below) to the city of Palm Springs.  BrightSource Energy says the facility would generate 500 megawatts of energy through steam boilers positioned on two 750-foot tall towers, as well as supplemental natural gas turbines.

[Click on image to expand] This is the footprint of the 5.9 square mile Palen Solar power project overlayed on the city of Palm Springs for comparison.  That is how much desert habitat will be destroyed over the next couple of years to build the project, if it is approved. The area will be covered with large heliostats - mirrors the size of garage doors - that reflect the sun's rays onto the towers to heat up steam boilers and generate energy. 
One of the significant impacts of the Palen Solar project identified in the CEC's Final Staff Assessment is the damage to visual resources.  The two towers will be visible from miles away to those seeking solitude and an escape to wildlands, including in Joshua Tree National Park and two wilderness areas.  Two 750 foot tall towers rising from the middle of the open desert is difficult to imagine , but for comparison, the towers would dwarf the Washington Monument, and tie for the third tallest buildings in Los Angeles.
The red cylinder to the left rises to 750 feet, the same height and dimensions as the "power towers" that will be constructed at the Palen Solar project site.  These towers will dominate the desert view, just as they would dominate the Washington skyline, as can be seen in this side-by-side comparison to the Washington Monument, above.

The project's thousands of mirrors are likely to appear as a lake or other body of water to shorebirds from far away, attracting them to their deaths.  This is a growing concern after various species of birds were found dead or dying at other solar projects earlier this year, according to KCET, including the endangered Yuma clapper rail.  What this means is that the project's impacts may extend beyond the species that normally forage in the area, and include species that use riparian habitat much further away.  The CEC staff assessment responded to public concern on this danger by explaining that there is a lack of available data on this impact to birds; despite this lack of understanding, it appears the CEC is ready to give the project approval.

BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project pictured above produces a glare that not only distracts from the natural landscape, it can appear as a body of water to some birds, like the reflection of the sun on a lake.  Birds may spot this perceived water feature and travel from far away, only to expose themselves to risk of collision or burning.

For birds that do find themselves flying over the project site, the dangers are numerous.  Birds may be exhausted from flying to the solar project only to find no water, while most bird mortality is likely to be caused by collision with the tens of thousands of large mirrors that will be installed.   Just as birds collide with reflective skyscraper windows that appear as open sky,  BrightSource Energy's mirrors will likely confuse birds flying through the project site.  Probably the worst fate will be for the birds unlucky enough to fly through the project's "solar flux," super-heated air that will burn birds to death or damage their feathers enough to prevent them from flying.

A screenshot from Avian Mortality at a Solar Energy Power Plant, a study by Michael McCrary and others at a solar power tower plant in California that found these birds burned by the super-heated air generated by the mirrors focusing the suns rays at central points above ground.  The study also found that most birds probably died from collisions with the mirrors.  The study focused on a small 10 megawatt solar power tower project on 72 acres near Barstow, CA. BrightSource Energy's Palen Solar power project will be over 3,700 acres larger than the project studied earlier.
The proposed Palen Solar site also hosts active kit fox dens. This species is under threat from a canine distemper outbreak from NextEra's Genesis Solar project site nearby. At least 11 of the animals have been found dead and tested positive for the disease, according to the staff assessment.  Testing by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has shown that some of the surviving kit foxes in the vicinity of the Palen Solar project site may have been exposed to distemper - if the foxes are evicted from their dens they could expose other populations of the animal to the disease and contribute to its spread.

The project will also be built along a natural sand transport corridor, where wind carries sand from one dune system to another.  Disrupting this natural cycle would affect not only the dune habitat on the project site, but downwind, as well. 

A younger Mojave fringe-toed lizard photographed at the Mojave National Preserve (Kelso Dunes).  This species prefers sandy dune habitat found on the site of the Palen Solar power project.
You can download the Part A of the Final Staff Assessment at this link [PDF, large file], and send specific comments to the CEC for consideration at the CEC e-comment website.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Will the California Legislature Save or Punish Ratepayers?

California's legislature is considering a bill (A.B. 327) that may solidify the monopoly status of investor-owned utility companies by charging all ratepayers a fixed fee.  Not only would this unfairly penalize ratepayers who invest their own money to make their homes and businesses energy efficient, it would strangle nascent efforts to democratize our energy grid with rooftop solar.  California ratepayers are already being taken to the bank by utility companies; each utility collects a guaranteed return of over 10% from ratepayers.  No matter what they build or destroy, they can earn a profit.  Even when utility companies make bad decisions, they expect to be compensated and rewarded.  For example, now that Southern California Edison shut down its failed nuclear plant at San Onofre, it wants to collect 2.4 billion dollars from ratepayers, enough money to pay for its misguided investment and earn at least 5.5% extra. 

Apparently utility companies don't want to give up this good deal, and they are threatened by the thousands of people who are installing solar panels on their rooftops.   In California, most rooftop solar owners are only credited at the retail rate - they do not earn money, but they can reduce the amount of money they owe on their utility bill.  However, this does not just benefit people with rooftop solar.  All ratepayers benefit from the excess energy generated by rooftop solar because it adds clean energy to the grid without the need to invest in expensive new transmission lines and remote power plants.  If this energy were not coming from the house next door, it would be coming from an expensive power plant hundreds of miles away, requiring dozens of miles of transmission lines.

Solar panels provide shade for students' vehicles at Victor Valley Community College in California.  There are plenty of places to generate clean energy in our cities, but utility companies see this development as a threat.  For every solar panel customers install over parking lots and rooftops, utility companies miss another opportunity to expand profits.
Utility company plans to punish rooftop solar and energy efficiency investments does not add up.  How can we justify this when utility companies continue to earn over 10% for the projects they build on remote wildlands, and even a 5.5% return for the failed San Onofre nuclear power plant?  I would rather invest in energy efficiency and rooftop solar than see another landscape destroyed by utility companies.  Instead of imposing unfair rates on the customers that reduce their burden on the grid, perhaps we should consider cutting the guaranteed profits these monopolistic utility companies are taking from ratepayers.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

DRECP Public Meetings

If you want to have your voice heard regarding the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) - a Federal and state effort to figure out the appropriate locations for large-scale renewable energy development in California's desert - you will have your chance on Friday, September 6, and Saturday, September 7.   As noted in the Desert Sun, the meetings will afford the public a chance to provide input to the planners.  The plan will identify areas for conservation, and areas for renewable energy development.  Speak up in favor of expanded conservation protection for our desert wildlands, and for renewable energy on rooftops and already-disturbed lands.  There is no need to for industry to destroy more wild places when we have a more sustainable alternative.

Meeting details:
  • Lucerne
When: 6:30-9:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Lucerne Valley Elementary School, 10788 Barstow Road

  • Yucca Valley
When: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Yucca Valley Community Center, 57090 29 Palms Highway