Ratepayers in California have been handed a false choice between two evils: Keep burning more and more fossil fuels to keep the lights on and our computers humming or pay the price for massive new solar, wind and geothermal power plants in remote parts of the state and hundreds of miles of new transmission lines.
There is a third and better choice, one that won’t send our utility bills skyrocketing, one that is ecologically wiser and one that will create jobs in our communities. But it’s being ignored by our utilities and their regulators.
The recently published Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), five years in the making and 8,000 pages long, proposes to build massive power plants on hundreds of thousands of acres of Southern California desert and build giant transmission lines to carry the electricity back to coastal cities. The DRECP would “fast track” the creation of 20,000 megawatts of generating capacity from renewable sources, which is about a third of what the state needs on a hot summer day.
There are serious drawbacks to the plan. The cost of the projects covered by the DRECP is enormous (no estimates are given) and the technologies proposed have not been proven on such a large scale. Also, utilities don’t profit by deploying efficient local solutions to the state’s electricity needs. They earn money by building behemoth power plants and transmission lines and then passing these costs – plus a guaranteed 11 percent profit – on to customers in monthly utility bills.
The environmental toll of the DRECP would extend throughout Southern California. Disturbing thousands of acres of desert soil to build these massive generating facilities would provide enough blowing sand to rival the Great Dust Bowl. Swirling sandstorms – an unexpected consequence of renewable energy projects in the desert – are already occurring in some areas. And keeping solar panels clean at existing solar farms is using groundwater desert communities cannot spare.
Furthermore, wind farms like the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility and the thermal solar plant at Ivanpah are not producing nearly the amount of energy promised.
There is a better, smarter option. However, it would require a change in incentives to allow utilities to profit just as much for doing what is best for the state, its utility customers and local communities.
It’s as simple as putting more solar panels on people’s rooftops and improving the efficiency of existing homes and buildings. A study from UCLA’s Luskin Center estimates the generating capacity from rooftop solar in Los Angeles County alone is more than 19,000 megawatts. Add to that the generating capacity of rooftops in San Diego and we far exceed the DRECP’s target of 20,000 megawatts, and we do so without scraping a single acre of desert or building another costly transmission line.
The last such line built in San Diego County – the Sunrise Powerlink – cost ratepayers nearly $2 billion.
The exhaustive DRECP dismisses rooftop solar in a category titled “Alternatives considered but not carried forward for detailed analysis.” According to the DRECP, rooftop solar would not “develop a streamlined process for the development of utility-scale facilities.” In other words, it wouldn’t make enough money for the utilities.
In California, utilities don’t earn a hefty return by investing in rooftop solar. However, if incentives and regulations were changed, our utility companies could make money developing rooftop solar – a less expensive alternative to pouring billions of dollars into giant transmission lines connected to untried and increasingly problematic large-scale generating facilities in fragile and inhospitable desert terrain.
Utility companies grouse that it’s difficult to connect thousands of small rooftop solar installations to the grid. As of October, Germany has connected almost 40,000 megawatts of rooftop solar to its electrical grid. It can be done, when political and economic incentives align.
Utility companies complain that rooftop solar only produces energy during the daylight hours. Their preference for utility-scale solar plants in the deserts of the backcountry seems to imply that nighttime is only a coastal phenomenon.
Tell the California Energy Commission what you think is the smart choice. Ask the DRECP’s environmental “stakeholder” organizations that have been noticeably silent – The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the California Native Plant Society – to make public their assessments of the plan.
Garmon is a physician in San Diego, president of the Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy and author of the online petition “We don’t have to sacrifice California’s deserts for renewable energy.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding