The Power of Alternative Energy
Southern California is now poised to generate clean renewable energy that will help fuel its society and economy for generations to come. The state is geographically located in an area where renewable energy is available in the form of geothermal, wind, and solar. Plentiful solar energy allows for extraction of other energy derivatives, such as biofuels. Numerous issues, however, must be addressed in order to transition California from dependency on fossil fuels and imported natural gas to reliance on California’s own renewable energy. This article will focus on the issues related to bringing solar energy produced in the high desert area of Southern California’s San Bernardino County to local consumers.
The high desert of Southern California, encompassing a large portion of San Bernardino County, is a high insolarity zone. This means it is ideal for solar energy generation. Currently, there are only a few existing solar power plants and several planned small-, medium-, and large-scale solar power plants in the zone. These new projects have not been constructed as planned for several reasons, including:
Environmental: Last year, many large-scale projects were cancelled due to environmental concerns. Most large-scale projects require large contiguous areas ranging from a few hundred Acres to thousands of Acres. The Bureau of Land Management, a federal government agency, has been leasing the vacant land for these projects; however, due to a lack of pre-zoning, many of the projects were sited in areas that were meant for desert conservation. After spending millions of dollars in development studies, many projects are no longer able to proceed until the environmental concerns are addressed. The federal government is now working on creating planning zones for government controlled land in order to correct this situation.
Transmission: The high desert area in San Bernardino County is serviced almost entirely by Southern California Edison (SCE). SCE claims that existing transmission capacity has been reached, and that SCE cannot accept new applications for power generation projects located North of Kramer Junction (including power from residential projects that would benefit from the feed-in-tariff) because the area is a net exporter of electricity. This impacts all commercial solar projects in a large prime solar production area. According to SCE, it will take six to eight years for needed transmission upgrades to take place.
Financial: The current credit crisis is impacting all types of developments. Private sector financing has been severely impacted and there is typically not enough margin of profit on solar energy developments to pay the high returns expected from venture capital investors. The United States Department of Energy (DOE) has implemented programs that provide up to 80 percent loan guarantee; however, the programs have been unsuccessful because they rely on banks to make the loans. Rather than participate in the DOE programs or to provide the loans through other programs, including the Small Business Administration, banks have elected to use their recent cash infusions, which could have been used to finance solar farms, to buy other banks, to invest in Wall Street (business as usual), and to provide additional reserves for losses that are still “off the books”, not to mention bonuses paid to top executives.
Feed-in-Tariff (FIT): This is a policy mechanism implemented by the California Public Utilities Commission to encourage the adoption of renewable energy sources. It typically includes three key provisions: 1) guaranteed grid access, 2) long-term contracts for the electricity produced, and 3) purchase prices that are methodologically based on the cost of renewable energy generation. Under a feed-in tariff, an obligation is imposed on regional or national electricity utilities to buy renewable electricity, from all eligible participants. This is an ideal program for a rapid deployment of small- to medium-sized solar energy projects. However, the price paid for the solar energy is extremely low, especially when compared to what is paid in other countries (e.g., Germany and Canada) for similar solar energy projects. In addition, although SCE has indicated that it will issue the contracts to purchase the electricity, it has also indicated that it will not pay for the electricity until the aforementioned transmission improvements have been completed in six to eight years.
Local Zoning: San Bernardino County is the largest county land mass in the United States and is a prime location for solar development. Prior to 2008, the San Bernardino County Development Code allowed commercial energy generation in most areas, including Rural Living Zones. On March 13, 2007, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors adopted all components of the 2007 General Plan Update Program, which consisted of an update to the General Plan text and maps, 13 community plans and a complete rewrite of the County Development Code. The General Plan was subsequently challenged in court because it did not address global warming and, as a result, in October 2008, Ordinance 4057 added Chapter 82.24 Energy Facilities Overlay to the Code in order to provide unique standards for “commercial energy generation and transmission facilities.” Unfortunately, the Energy Overlay only addressed wind developments and restricted commercial energy generation within rural living zones to properties located in Rural Living 40 Zones (RL-40). On December 17, 2009, the Planning Commission approved additional Development Code Amendments that address solar development and streamline the approval process by removing the need to file for a General Plan Amendment for projects meeting the new Code. The proposed code further limits Renewable Energy Generation Facilities to 20-Acres minimum, requiring a major variance for small parcels (including small parcels located in RL-40 zones). In addition, the code prohibits commercial generation of electricity in residential zones.
Generally, a large scale solar project (greater than 20 megawatts) takes years to progress from the conceptual stage to a finished development. On the other hand, small-scale and medium-scale solar projects have can progress from conceptual stage to finished development in a matter of months. An example of a small-scale project is placing Photo Voltaic (PV) panels on the roof of a home to either off-set a portion of the electricity used in the residence or to sell excess electricity to the utility company. This is the ideal solution for the community, as the excess energy is typically produced at a time of day when energy is needed most, thus reducing the burden on the electrical grid. Regrettably the proposed San Bernardino Code does not allow households to sell its electricity to the utility company, because a residential zone is not listed as an allowable energy generation zone. SCE reaffirms this impediment when they say they will not process new applications for residents to sell their excess energy.
A solar farm utilizes vacant land instead of a roof top to generate commercial scale solar energy. Solar farm projects are typically in the one megawatt to 20 megawatt range. Solar farm sites are usually situated near adequate existing roadways for site access and existing electrical distribution lines. SCE has a feed-in-tariff program called California Renewable Energy Small Tariff (CREST) that permits solar farm development contracts up to 1.5 megawatts of solar power; yet, as previously mentioned, SCE states that no new applications will be processed until the infrastructure has been improved, in effect negating its own feed-in-tariff program which is meant to be “a simple and streamlined mechanism for certain generators to sell electricity to the utility without complex negotiations and delays.”
SCE has multiple planned-phased solutions for the infrastructure area North of Kramer Junction, which has been overly congested for quite some time. The congestion includes existing generation and generation in the queue ahead of small projects that could go online now. Loads in the area are small and scattered, and so the area is a net exporter of energy. The transmission lines that facilitate this export are overloaded during contingency circumstances (loss of a line, loss of a transformer, etc) and, therefore, SCE claims, new generation cannot be accommodated. SCE is using special protection schemes to facilitate the generation now on line and/or in the queue. Having a project that generates electricity for local use is currently as much of a problem as shipping the power to areas where more load exists because it increases the net export of power in an area that has inadequate transmission infrastructure. The immediate solution is for SCE to reduce power generation from fossil-fuel plants and to accept solar electricity from small generators under the FIT program, thus allowing the electricity produced by the solar farms to be used locally (as intended by the California Public Utilities Commission) and allowing SCE to meet the mandated Renewable Portfolio Standard program which requires electric corporations to increase procurement from eligible renewable energy resources by at least 1 percent of their retail sales annually, until they reach 20 percent by 2010.
The California Transmission Planning Group (CTPG), a forum for conducting joint
transmission planning studies and for coordinating CTPG members’ transmission planning activities (which includes SCE), has published a draft study report dated January 13, 2010, titled 2010 Phase 1 CTPG 2020 Study Report. The purpose of the CTPG study work is to develop a state-wide transmission plan that provides the transmission infrastructure necessary to reliably and efficiently meet, by year 2020, the state’s 33% renewable portfolio standard (RPS) goal. This will be achieved by utilizing a diverse portfolio of renewable energy generation technologies including wind, geothermal, small hydro, biomass and solar available to supply projected electricity demand in California. The study reports that “To accommodate the output of new renewable generators dispatched in the 2020 power flow
cases, it is necessary to reduce the output of fossil-fired generators by corresponding amounts. To accomplish this, fossil-fired generation was reduced in blocks, equal to the increments of renewable generation. A 70/30 split between California fossil generation and other WECC fossil generation was used. Fossil generation was decremented in a merit-order fashion (least economic reduced first). Nuclear and hydro units are not decremented in the summer peak cases. Approximately 13,000 MW of fossil-fired generation is backed down to accommodate the renewable generation dispatch with approximately 9,300 MW in-state and 3,700 MW out-ofstate”. This approach is needed now in order for SCE to reach its 2010 RPS goal.
It is important to note that according to the San Bernardino Planning staff, solar farms are viewed as industrial developments and, therefore, come under zoning restrictions imposed by San Bernardino County meant to preserve the rural living atmosphere throughout the County, and to prevent the Solar Farms from being “everywhere”. While the manufacturing of the electrical components used to build a solar farm (e.g., panels, transformers, inverters) is properly classified as an industrial activity, solar energy generation should not be classified as an industrial activity. Instead, it deserves its own distinct classification , which is definitely not industrial.
The benefits to removing the impediments that stand in the way of solar power generation, whether from a small roof-top system to large solar farm, are impressive and urgently needed. Residential and commercial solar power generation in San Bernardino County in conformity with an enlightened County Planning Code will:
1. Generate jobs immediately.
2. Provide income potential to all property owners.
3. Align San Bernardino code with California state law and with the expressed intent of the Governor and California legislature.
4. Help free the United States from dependence on foreign oil and natural gas.
5. Reduce global warming.
We are living thorough a new era. We now have the potential and opportunity to become energy independent at all levels… as residents, as a county, as a state, and as a nation.
About the Author: Ned J. Araujo, is Senior Vice President, Soltech Solar, Inc., and a California Registered Civil Engineer. Mr Araujo has consulted as the Civil Engineer of Record for numerous large-scale solar developments, and is currently developing several solar energy projects for Soltech Solar, Inc. Mr Araujo also provides strategic counsel to leading solar energy companies.
Soltech Solar, Inc., is committed to working with communities to provide community benefits in areas of job creation for local residents, training opportunities and renewable energy educational opportunities for local students. Soltech is a key stakeholder in The High Desert Region Green Jobs Initiative whose mission is to link economic and workforce development to advance the green economy in northern Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and southeastern Kern County. The Initiative is achieved through public/private partnerships and guided by a collaboration of the private sector, government, community-based organizations addressing career development and job training, labor, educational institutions, youth, and under and unemployed adults.
Soltech Solar, Inc., is also working with the Mojave Work Source Center, The San Bernardino County Alliance for Education, High Desert Region Green Jobs Initiative and the Eco-hut Academy to assure a successful trainedand certifiedworkforce. This will be available to local residents, dislocated workers, veterans, unemployed contractors and new workforce entrants. The project will include a focus on education available to local schools to teach students about the Soltech Solar energy facilities and renewable energy.