David Vs. Goliath: The Solar Story

Behind their shared pride in the Golden State’s green incentives,two types of renewable energy proponents are fueling a debate over thedirection California’s solar movement—and perhaps that of thenation—should take.

Most of the high-profile solar development projectsin California and elsewhere across the country are large-scale powerplants, which sell electricity to utilities companies, which in turnfunnel them into nearby homes. It’s the traditional model, but it’s notgoing uncontested. There are some solar power supporters, like engineerand energy consultant Bill Powers, who don’t think bigger is better.

“The solar plants in the desert are albatrosses,” Powerssaid. “We’ve come to a point where (photovoltaic solar) is either goingto be in the remote installations or it’s going to be in the urbancore. It’ll be much more beneficial for those solar panels to besitting in the urban core where they’re going to be used.”

Powers argues that California should cover every rooftop—commercialbuildings in particular—with photovoltaic solar panels, which don’tneed to clear as much bureaucratic red tape as utility-scale plants doand whose prices have dropped roughly 40 percent over the past yearalone. No more waiting on a government land permit for years, orbuilding lengthy new power lines across the desert. (Not to mention stand-offs with wildlife protectionistswhere endangered species are involved.) Furthermore, small-scale solarwrests power away from the utilities and places it back in the hands ofthe home or business owner.

Yet distributed generation is not without its flaws. For one, it’sexpensive—more expensive (17 percent more, according to the CaliforniaEnergy Commission via the San Francisco Chronicle) thana utility-size solar thermal project, whose price is governed not onlyby economies of scale, but also by an entirely different (and cheaper)technology ill-fitted for private rooftop use.

“Because of the economic and operational issues, I thinkwe’re going to see large-scale, grid-connected power for a long, longtime,” said Jonathan Marshall, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and ElectricCo.

Granted, Marshall is speaking on behalf of a player positioned tobenefit from the dominance of large-scale solar, so it’s safe to assumehe’s speaking with a bias. But even some advocates for small-scaleenergy production, such as Carl Zichelle, regional director for theSierra Club in California, admit that the days of the traditional modelare still far from over.

“We need to do it all,” Zichella said. “It’s quitepossible we can get more distributed generation than we thought, and ifwe get enough, we can build fewer big plants. But I haven’t seen anystudies I think are credible that say we won’t need any.”

With utilities still required to achieve a 20 percent renewableenergy target by the end of 2010—a target they are expected tomiss—it’s unlikely that large-scale projects will disappear anytimesoon. But with the right incentives, technologies and momentum, perhapsa push for a new solar model is on the horizon for 2010.

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