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Massive renewable energy projects may have local impacts on the desert, but won’t they save the rest of the world from global warming?
Big Solar and Wind facilities will require so much ecologically intact land that we will ultimately lose many of the places and wildlife we want to protect from global warming, including habitats that sequester greenhouse gases (GHGs). So far, energy companies have submitted applications to develop almost 230,000 acres, or about 360 square miles, of public land in California alone —the vast majority of it undeveloped wild lands—for solar and wind projects. These projects would only supply a fraction of our energy needs, but would needlessly industrialize many of our intact wildlands.
Given the urgency of climate change, isn’t rooftop solar deployment too slow?
Distributed generation (DG) installations increase rapidly with the right policies. Over half of Germany’s 53,000 megawatts (MW) of clean energy are generated by smaller installations owned by individuals, and that number is growing rapidly. Germany installed 3,000 MW of solar in Dec. 2011 alone. In Australia, over 500,000 homes have rooftop solar thanks to a successful feed-in-tariff. The US has been slow to adopt policies proven effective elsewhere, but even so California has installed 1,000 megawatts of rooftop solar. Not a single watt of large-scale industrial solar has come online since solar “fast-tracking” was implemented in 2005. The NREL has identified the potential for 80,000 MW of rooftop solar in California alone, far more than would be needed to reach even the most ambitious RPS/RES goals.
See: Germany solar: http://energyselfreliantstates.org/content/american-and-germany-getting-their-renewable-energy-just-desserts and http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-06/germany-s-solar-surge-leaves-biggest-market-steady-in-2011.html, Australia: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/energy-smart/solar-panel-users-climb-through-roof-20111205-1ofjx.html.
Aren’t deserts too hot, dry and inhospitable to support much life?
While many people believe that deserts are inhospitable places that support very little life, nothing could be further from the truth. According to the Endangered Species Coalition, our diverse North American deserts, home to many thousands of species and hundreds of diverse ecosystems, face a threat from global warming that is second only to that of the Arctic. Even seemingly sterile desert landscapes such as dry lakes teem with living things.
Don't tortoises like the shade solar facilities create?
Federally threatened desert tortoises — and other sensitive species like burrowing owls and kit foxes — use burrows and desert plants for shade. When a site is developed for solar, these animals are relocated or forced out of the area. Diseases may be spread and as many as half the adult tortoises moved from their homes may perish from the rigors of handling and relocation. The vast majority of juveniles and eggs, which can number in the thousands on single sites, may perish undetected. Fences are placed around the entire project site, excluding tortoises and larger animals and interrupting normal migration patterns across large areas. Industrial solar development radically alters 100% of the project site, which can be as large as 10 square miles. Before construction can begin, the entire area is graded flat by heavy equipment — or mown down, with effectively the same impact to the plant and animal life — to place the photovoltaic (PV) panels or mirrors. Destroying desert soils can cause or exacerbate airborne partriculate matter, erosion, and flooding problems.
Won’t the economy of scale with larger installations mean their power will be cheaper?
It’s cheaper per watt of power generated right now to install a small rooftop system in Germany than to install a giant desert installation in the US. Sensible policy can drive down prices much faster and more effectively than corporate giveaways. German Feed in Tariffs (FIT’s) have resulted in a 10% drop in electricity prices as onsite solar reduces the need to buy expensive daytime peak-period power. FITs provide income to people and local economies, whereas when Big Solar cash goes to Chevron, BP, Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley, and is pulled out of the community.
What about preserving valuable agricultural land from industrial solar and wind development?
There’s no need to pave productive agricultural land over with solar panels or giant wind turbines. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified millions of acres of severely degraded and contaminated lands suitable for industrial wind and solar in its Re-Powering America’s Land program and millions more rooftops, parking lots, urban brownfields, highway medians and other developed spaces would benefit from shade and high-value power provided by solar panels.
Don’t we need all scales of renewable energy production in order to combat climate change?
Distributed generation could handily meet our renewable energy needs without pursuing remote, utility-scale development on our irreplaceable wildlands. Unfortunately, in the US, the energy and banking industries work to block common-sense, effective solutions like increasing efficiency and local generation even though these solutions are faster to implement and better for our environment, our economy, our communities and our atmosphere. The poor allocation of limited grid distribution capacity and financial and technical resources to remote, corporate-owned central solar primarily benefits utility investors while depriving individuals, businesses and local communities of the opportunity to develop and benefit from their own renewable resources. See: "Centralized v. Decentralized Clean Energy – We May Have to Choose" by John Farrell.
Don't desert panels produce a lot more power than panels in less-sunny areas?
Photovoltaic and air-cooled concentrating solar plants are less efficient and transmission losses highest when temperatures are high and when the power is needed most. 10 to 14% of the electricity is lost through long-distance transmission, effectively negating marginally higher insolation. PV is modular: there is no increase in power production gained by aggregating panels in a single site. Transmission infrastructure is also inherently vulnerable to weather, natural disasters, cyber hacking/terrorism and human error, while local micro-grids are ideal to accommodate local solar generation at peak times without ever accessing transmission infrastructure.
Wouldn't the large-scale solar projects bring a lot of jobs to the community?
Solar power plants can be controlled remotely and only a few people are needed to manage large plants. Once the 1- or 2-year construction cycle is over, very few permanent jobs remain, depending on the technology. Construction workers are normally hired by contractors who maintain their own skilled labor force, so that local hiring may be minimal. By contrast, the installation of distributed rooftop solar produces up to 3.5 times as many jobs and local economic benefit. Rooftop solar and efficiency upgrades also increase property values and if feed-in-tariffs are in place, improve prosperity for the community.
Why should NIMBY’s (“Not In My Backyard”) get to stall our best chance to combat global warming?
Solar Done Right supports generating renewable energy in our backyards, on our rooftops, and in our neighborhoods. Objecting to corporate dominance over our economy, democracy and environment is not NIMBYism. Local solutions of efficiency upgrades, passive heating/cooling and distributed solar/microwind in the built environment are the most effective, fastest and fairest way to combat global warming. That said, we should all be concerned about our own “backyards”, and get to know them. The principle of "Think Globally, Act Locally" is a sound one. People will conserve and protect the places they know and love, i.e., the wild lands and neighborhoods around them. If every community installed rooftop solar, conserved energy, and cared for their “backyards”, we would achieve much toward reducing GHG emissions and confronting the climate crisis.
What is the difference between Net Metering and Feed-in-Tariffs?
Net metering is when a ratepayer receives a credit against their utility bill for energy they generate from rooftop solar or other onsite renewable energy generation. The credit is generally based on the current retail electricity rate with scant (or no) payment for generation above onsite consumption. If designed well, over time, a FIT will cover the full cost of the installation and provide a small profit to the owner/generator, similar to the profit that a utility would enjoy. In Germany 100% of the power generated on rooftops is purchased by utilities and the ratepayer-generator buys power from the grid in the usual way. The Australian system, in contrast, net meters for energy consumed onsite, and the ratepayer is paid a premium for energy generated above what it uses. FITs are a much more effective incentive for ratepayers to improve energy efficiency and install rooftop solar. A well-designed FIT can be a tremendous boon to community prosperity, as opposed to industrial wind and solar which impose large costs on local counties while diverting profits out of the community.
What is PACE?
A Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) bond provides upfront financing to residential and commercial property owners who wish to implement energy efficiency measures and install small (usually up to 1 MW) renewable energy systems. The funds are repaid through an annual assessment (usually 20 years) on their property tax bill, making the loans extremely low-risk to the lender, and are generally paid from the property owner’s financial savings from the improvement. If the property owner later sells, the assessment need not be immediately repaid out of the proceeds but instead stays with the property, making it extremely low-risk to property owners. PACE bonds can be issued by state, county or municipal financing districts or finance companies and the proceeds can be used to retrofit both commercial and residential properties. PACE is not a tax but rather a voluntary program where only those property owners who opt into the program are asked to pay. Learn more about PACE and how to restore this type of financing at: http://pacenow.org/blog/