Saturday, July 5, 2008

Fed-Up with Solar

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management did an about turn on its decision to suspend new solar project application in the desert lands it manages. This is good news for proponents of a joint paper by Clean Edge and Co-op America, which projects the US to obtain 10% of electricity through solar by 2025 if it gets its policies right.

BLM Reverses Moratorium on New Solar Project Applications

In May, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a U.S. fedeal agency, announced that it would temporarily suspend the receipt of new applications (but would continue to review the 125 applications already received) for solar projects on the 258 acres of federal lands it manages over 12 states (predominantly in solar irradiance-rich western states) for two years while a programmatic environmental impact study (PEIS) would be carried out. The New York Times ran a story covering industry reaction to BLM’s decision only last week, apparently sparking off a flurry of backlash resulting in a dramatic reversal of the moratorium on solar applications on Wednesday (July 2). As are result, the BLM will continue to accept new applications for solar projects, in addition to reviewing the 125 existing applications, while also carrying out the PEIS.

The reasons for the moratorium in the first place are worth a look. At least one blog as posited that the unspoken reason for the suspension was to give breathing space for the understaffed BLM to process applications currently in their docket. However, the official reason for the suspension—the conduct of a PEIS—deserves further scrutiny. As the feds point out, the law, specifically the National Environmental Policy Act, requires agencies to conduct environmental impact studies on “major federal actions with the potential for significant impact on the quality of the human environment.”

What sort of environmental impacts might large scale solar projects pose? The first thing to recognize is that the lands in question encapsulate fragile desert ecosystems that serve as habitat to a unique diversity of flora and fauna. The environmental impacts of solar projects can be categorized as land disturbance/land use, visual disturbance, hazardous materials, water impact, and others. Click here for more detailed explanations. I have no sympathy for those who charge that solar projects spoil the aesthetic of the beautiful Mojave Desert. It sounds all too Kennedy vs. Cape Wind to me. If you can’t build solar plants on a freakin’ desert, where the hell can you build them? But the concerns of water impact are worth an extra mention. I for one was recently caught off guard to learn from a 2006 government report that certain solar tower and solar trough technologies consume comparable amounts of water to coal and nuclear plants. I need not state the obvious—water is not exactly abundant in deserts. Ooops, I just did.

Indeed, the BLM has previously conducted a PEIS for wind projects on federal lands, and recently published for public comment a Draft PEIS on geothermal energy development. So although the proposed PEIS on solar development may stoke fears of this being yet another case of environmentalists blocking green power, it is consistent with BLM’s past actions and with federal law. I also agree with Green Wombat on the value of having BLM conduct a ecosystem-wide PEIS when he says:

...developing a desert-wide environmental policy is absolutely essential for huge power plants that in total would cover hundreds of square miles of a fragile landscape home to protected wildlife and rare plants. Otherwise, watch each individual project get bogged down in endless environmental challenges.

U.S. Can Achieve 10% Solar Generation by 2025

Still, BLM’s reversal is good news to the proponents of "Utility Solar Assessment (USA) Study: Reaching Ten Percent Solar by 2025," a joint report by Clean Edge and Co-op America that projects that the US can obtain 10% of its electricity from solar power by 2025 if technologists, utilities and policy makers adopt its prescription. Desert solar power is an important component to achieving this goal, and BLM’s reversal only serves to bolster the chances of making this goal reality. I’ll leave it to other blogs to provide you the executive-executive summary of the joint report, but I will highlight two things that stood out for me in reading it.

First, the central premise of the report is that it is the utilities, more than any other stakeholders, which have to drive the solar bus. Promoting distributed power generation in the form of solar panels represents a paradigm shift for delivering power; utilities can’t wrap their minds around how to manage such a dispersed system as they are used to managing centralized coal, natural gas or nuclear facilities. This report is rather refreshing to me as it means that the very institutions that have resisted solar in the past should now come to terms with the new realities that leave them with little alternative but to champion it. These realities, the report points out, include:

  • Rising coal and natural gas costs in the wake of supply scarcity and soon, US carbon regulation
  • The cost-competitiveness of solar power with peak fossil fuel electricity generation
  • The growing number of states that have enacted Renewable Portfolio Standards, and some even with solar power set-asides.
  • The declining costs of solar power due to technological improvements and growing economies-of-scale (18% decline with each doubling of capacity).
  • The emergence of new players such as SolarCity who have introduced innovative financing models that spare end-users the upfront costs of owning solar panel installations and making it more attractive to switch to off-grid power options like solar, thus posing a threat to traditional utilities market share.
  • The growth of utility-scale concentrating solar power projects, predominantly in the southwestern desert regions in which the BLM has just relit up the neon “OPEN” sign, still offers a familiar centralized model of energy distribution for utilities to take comfort in.

Indeed, some leading investor-owned utilities have already heeded solar’s siren call. North Carolina’s Duke Energy is one. Since the solar coaster last reported on Duke’s PPA to purchase electricity from Sun Edison’s proposed 16 MW solar PV plant, Duke has announced plans to install distributed PV systems across 850 sites in the Tar Heel State at the cost of $100 million, yielding 16 MW of power, enough to serve 2,600 homes. Duke Energy will own and operate these PV systems and sell the resulting power to its customers. Florida-based FPL has accelerated its own solar investments, with 110 MW of solar capacity in Florida, the self-dubbed “Sunshine State”, pending approvals.

Second, the report mentioned certain game-changing trends that could really accelerate solar adoption which the solar coaster has not dwelled into too much detail to date—smart grid technologies, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) and all-electric vehicles (EV). With smart meters, utilities can introduce “real time” electricity pricing and allow consumers to fully appreciate the true value of solar power during peak generation periods. Intelligent grid interconnections can also better facilitate net metering—i.e. allowing PV users to sell electricity back to the grid during periods of excess generation, thus bringing a better return on investment for the PV users.

Energy storage has been considered the “Holy Grail” of renewable energy development as it addresses the issue of intermittency of such sources. It just so happens that the quest to find on-grid energy storage solutions dovetails really well with the quest to build green cars, specifically PHEV/EV. PHEV/EV is where the world of electricity meets the world of auto fuels. The development of PHEV/EV represents additional demands on the electricity grid, but they also represent an additional source of electricity, in the form of storage! Says the report:

Since vehicles typically aren’t’ in use more than 90 percent of the time, they could provide the perfect “vehicle” for storing electricity (in their battery packs), then sell this energy back to the grid at times when it is most needed, such as evening hours after commuters return home. Vehicles’ power might come from rooftop solar carports at work, from residential solar PV systems, or from centralized PV or CSP power plants.

Sounds great time me but one point is worth checking—I was led to believe that the premise of PHEV/EV was that they would be plugged-in in the evenings so as to relieve pressure on an already over-taxed grid. Under this scenario, the feeding-in of electricity by vehicles would not occur at night, when solar systems are not operating. This perhaps suggests that for the co-benefits of solar and PHEV/EV to be fully realized, careful whole-systems planning between both realms of clean energy development is needed.

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