Solar Awakening

An article in Renewable Energy World discusses natural gas as a "bridge" to renewable energy sources, such as utility-scale solar and wind, showing how energy companies are exploiting demand for renewable energy to double down on investment in fossil fuels and unnecessary infrastructure, such as transmission lines.   As long as we draw the majority of our energy from giant utility companies, you can bet on an unhealthy mix of fossil fuels in the grid.  Utility companies are guaranteed a fixed return on the massive transmission lines that link expensive and dirty central station power plants to our cities from far away, and the companies that build those power plants are heavily invested in fossil fuels.

Wind turbines spoiling desert landscapes require new transmission lines, and the "intermittency" of the wind requires a new natural gas plant, and more transmission lines.  These companies collect a guaranteed profit from you,  and then turn around and invest that money in more destruction.

NV Energy, a Nevada utility company, says it has a plan to replace the dirty Reid-Gardner coal power plant pictured above.  But it involves more natural gas generation, and utility-scale solar and wind on pristine wildlands. And that means they want to build more transmission lines, too.
When you drive by a utility-scale wind or solar project, most like the money and companies behind that are also hard at work destroying other wildlands to extract fossil fuels.   These companies have invested billions of dollars in machinery and land for fossil fuel exploration and extraction, and the return they expect to see on this investment will take decades to be realized. 

Consider K Road, the company building the Moapa Solar project that is touted as the savior for the Moapa community that is besieged by the Reid-Gardner coal plant.   K Road will destroy 3 square miles of desert on the Moapa Band of Paiutes' reservation for the Moapa Solar project -- sharing a relatively minuscule amount of profit with the tribe.  At the same time, K Road is building a 600 megawatt coal power plant in the Philippines.   To the company's executives in New York, they are investing in whatever will secure a healthy return - what happens to the communities where they operate is not a concern.  The Sierra Club's press releases on the K Road project did not mention the company's continued coal development, or plans to build a hydro power dam on a tropical river in South America.

A photograph of preparations for a single wind turbine pad at the Ocotillo Express Wind project.  Notice the new dirt road, and clearing around the pad, with a deep pit that will be filled with tons of cement and steel to anchor the turbine.  Photo by Phillip Colla. Aviation support provided by LightHawk.
Another example is the Silver State North solar project, also in Nevada.  Built by First Solar on a patch of desert deemed to be sensitive and important to the recovery of the threatened desert tortoise, the project was sold to Canada-based Enbridge.  Now Enbridge makes money from ratepayers that think they are buying guilt-free clean energy.  What they don't know is that their money is going to a company that will pool and reinvest that money in hundreds of miles of oil sands pipelines in North America.   Not far away in Arizona, BP now wants to build a massive wind facility across over 54 square miles of desert.  But don't count on that company to abandon drilling for oil and natural gas.

All of this is to say that if we are truly serious about breaking our ties to fossil fuels and destruction of wildlands, we need to make energy decisions rooted in a core conservation ethic.  We need to deprive these companies of our business as much as possible.  And that means that the most sustainable renewable energy path involves a much higher component of distributed generation.  Will corporations be involved? Yes.  But the investments begin to undermine the corporate paradigm that counts on a centralized and destructive energy grid.  Goldman Sachs invested 500 million dollars in rooftop solar leasing this past week.  Each of the solar panels installed under that financing will chip away at the stranglehold of utility companies on our communities and ecosystems, and a grid that continues to generate profits for other large corporations. 

NRG, which has also invested in destructive solar projects in the desert, teamed up with the owners of this stadium in Philadelphia to install solar panels on the side of the building (the diagonally arranged panels in the picture above), as well as over some of the parking lots.  The stadium now generates nearly 3 megawatts of clean energy, and no wildlands had to be destroyed to install the panels.
An even better model is being championed by Solar Mosaic, which allows individual investors -- anybody with at least $25 -- to invest in a rooftop solar installation in the community.   Compared to the example of Goldman Sachs giving millions of dollars,  Solar Mosaic is more like crowd-funding, and typically involves hundreds of small investments for each rooftop solar installation.  This means that investment comes from, and stays in the community. And the end product does not involve bulldozers on wildlands.
An info graphic by Solar Mosaic shows how hundreds of individuals came together to fund a rooftop solar project in New Jersey.  That is capital and clean energy that is undermining the central power of utility companies.
Building on the power of the individual and community, programs such as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) and feed-in-tariffs allow us to install clean, distributed generation and improve energy efficiency.  PACE allows a homeowner to install rooftop solar financed through their own individual property tax.  Feed-in-tariffs force utility companies to buy power from individuals with rooftop solar, instead of going to their fossil fuel cronies for more energy that is generated far from the community.  Unfortunately utility companies are staunchly against feed-in-tariffs and the Obama administration's Federal Housing Finance Agency has mired PACE in red tape to protect the banks.

But even with relatively weak distributed generation incentives, we are still breaking free.  California now has over 150,000 rooftops with solar panels, a milestone that the Sierra Club lauded in an interview with KCET's ReWire.   In Arizona, citizens are taking a stand against a utility company that is trying to slash rooftop solar incentives, including a vocal conservative icon.  In Washington, D.C., communities are finding space for solar panels on relatively small rooftops, and encouraging their neighbors to do the same.  This is the difference between renewable energy, and sustainable energy, and it is what will ultimately spare our planet from unnecessary destruction.

Solar panels on a rooftop in Hawaii, where rooftop solar is chipping away at fossil fuel's grip.


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