A combination of local energy and regional political pressure can help Inyo County take advantage of its solar power potential and maybe stymie plans by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to build a large-scale commercial solar project in the county.
That one-two combo was suggested by consultant Bill Powers during a presentation called “Solar Done Right.” The main tenets of “Solar Done Right” are threefold: aggressive energy efficiency, small scale solar installations and local control of energy policy and policy implementation, said Powers.
Powers, an engineer who consults on solar and electric power issues, presented his views on the solar power situation to about 150 people attending the Owens Valley Committee fundraiser Saturday in Bishop.
The State of California has crafted an “excellent” renewable energy strategy, Powers said, but it is not being implemented. Because of implementation problems, “boondoggles” like the LADWP’s proposed 200-megawatt, 1,200-acre Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch are on the drawing boards instead of more cost-effective alternatives, such as “small distributed solar” installations on homes and businesses in Los Angeles, he said.
Inyo County citizens and businesses should take advantage of current programs that encourage solar installations, Powers said, and consider creating a regional, locally controlled agency to deliver enough renewable energy to meet the electric needs of both Inyo and Mono counties.
Powers warned that challenging electric utility companies is a complex chore. He has been working on various solar programs that seek to alter the current, utility dominated model in the Bay Area and San Diego. “In California, if you push back” against the current utility business model, “you have to end up in court.”
But Powers sounded some optimistic notes about the solar- and alternative-energy potential in Inyo County, and also noted that that current “dynamic state” of Los Angeles politics offers a good opportunity for the county and its citizens to impact LADWP’s solar-power plans.
“I definitely got the timing right for this talk,” he said in reference to both the trends in Los Angeles and the engaged Inyo County citizens seeking alternatives to both the LADWP Solar Ranch and the county’s proposed Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment.
Concerning California’s renewable energy goals, Powers said, “on paper, it’s a great strategy.” But on the ground, that policy is not generating the kind and type of renewable power many envisioned, he said. For example, the most well-known state energy mandate states that by 2020 California’s utilities must get 33 percent of their power from renewables (solar, wind, hydroelectric).
But rooftop solar installations are not counted as part of a utility’s renewable energy portfolio, he said. Rooftop solar only counts toward meeting energy efficiency goals, so installing more solar on roofs in Los Angeles, for example, will not affect LADWP’s need to secure a significant supply of additional renewable energy.
That means the state’s utilities, including LADWP and Southern California Edison, are looking to new, large-scale wind and solar installations to meet the state renewable energy mandate.
Since it costs more to transmit electricity hundreds of miles to where it will be used, “if you’re just comparing the numbers, you wouldn’t put it (the DWP Solar Ranch) here,” he said, but state law allows utilities to recoup the higher costs and expenses associated with renewable energy, which skews the economic calculations for large, distant solar arrays.
It is more cost-effective to have residential and small, commercial-scale solar installations located throughout the 500 square miles of land in the LA basin. The dramatic drop in the price of producing electricity using photovoltaic solar panels means “economies of scale” can accumulate with smaller arrays of between 5 to 10 megawatts, Powers said. “There’s no need for 100 or 200 megawatt” solar power plants to generate cost savings on installation and operations, he said.
Germany is the “real world model” of small-scale, dispersed solar making a dramatic impact. He noted Germany’s national energy policy had a clear “commitment” to solar. The country spent significant sums on incentives and subsidies for solar installations of all sizes, and the result is that 85 percent of the nation’s buildings generate solar electricity.
Inyo County and Los Angeles are not Germany, but Powers said recent developments in Los Angeles mean that now is an opportune time to lobby for a change in the city’s and LADWP’s approach to renewables and solar.
“This is the right time to make the pitch” for Los Angeles to move toward more localized, small-scale solar installations as opposed to LADWP’s plans for building or buying power from large solar arrays and other sources.
“The right mayor” is in place to really change LADWP’s policies, Powers said, noting that recently elected mayor Eric Garcetti has “broken the mold” when it comes to confronting LADWP and proposing significant changes to how the city-owned utility does business. Powers noted the mayor’s appointees to the LADWP Commission and the newly appointed LADWP general manager owe their allegiance to the mayor, not the LADWP.
“You need to take it (your concerns and alternatives) to LA,” he said, since only political decisions can alter LADWP’s current plans for the Solar Ranch and future plans for roof-top and large-scale solar and renewable programs and policies.
On the local front, Powers said residents should “take advantage” of the incentive programs offered by LADWP and Southern California Edison for residential and commercial solar installations. With some organization and coordination, homeowners and businesses can “bundle” together large numbers of rooftop solar installations, and probably achieve lower installation costs, he noted. In metropolitan areas, up to 200 installations are bid out at once, he said.
A “mass deployment of solar” would send a signal to LADWP and SoCal Edison that the county’s residents are serious about implementing a local solar solution, Powers said.
A more ambitious and complex move would be creation of a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) power authority. State law allows counties and cities to create a CCA, which buys power from the utilities serving the area and provides it to their citizens. Marin and Sonoma counties have formed CCAs, and Powers is among those working on forming a CCA in San Diego.
The good news is that existing geothermal and hydroelectric power plants in Inyo County produce more than enough renewable energy to power the entire region. The less good news is there isn’t enough electricity used in Inyo County to get state approval for a CCA. But Powers said Inyo and Mono counties combined could qualify, under state guidelines. The move would be complicated and the benefits might not be as great in some other regions because two utilities, LADWP and Edison, supply power in Inyo County, Powers said. The primary benefit of a CCA is that is acts like a municipal-owned utility, thus can charge lower rates than an investor-owned utility, which has to show a profit. Edison is an investor-owned utility, while LADWP is a municipal-owned utility.
Despite the complexities, “just trying, just pursing a CCA” can “change the interactions between a utility” and its customers, Powers said.
While the long-term trends are encouraging, Powers also noted, in response to a question from the audience, that utility companies are slow to change, and must be pushed and prodded by customers, regulators and lawmakers to change, because “the electric power industry is the last bastion of monopolies in America.”