Viewpoint: A new reality of solar power
San Luis Obispo Tribune, December 13, 2009
By Karen Merriam
On Nov. 12, the county Planning Commission completed its
landmark review and update of the county’s 20-year-old Conservation
and Open Space Element.
On Thursday, commissioners are going to meet once more to give the entire
document a final once-over before voting to affirm the contents of the
current draft and send it on to the Board of Supervisors.
The Planning Commission put much of great value into the update. The energy
chapter alone, which formally makes distributed generation (also known
as local power) into a county policy, has immense potential to shape the
way we live for the next 20 years.
The recent plunge in the price of solar panels, accelerated by the commercial
breakthrough of thin-film solar technology, has changed everything. Conventional
wisdom has long dismissed distributed rooftop solar power as a major player
in our energy future, relegating it to permanent niche market status without
the potential to supply a significant portion of our energy requirements.
Those statements are now inoperative.
The conventional wisdom was in place when California embarked on the Renewable
Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI), a study whose purpose was to find
the optimal locations for hundreds of miles of new transmission lines
to bring renewable power from remote sources to distant cities. But the
big news from the RETI report turned out to be that more than two-thirds
of the amount of renewable energy needed to get California to our ambitious
renewables target (33 percent of all energy generated by 2020) can be
produced by small-scale, distributed rooftop solar power.
Last month, the Grist Web site posted an interview with Ryan Pletka, the
renewable energy project manager for Black & Veatch, the engineering
colossus that did RETI’s economic analysis.
“I’ve worked in renewables since the 1990s, and I myself had
written off solar PV for years and years and years,” Pletka told
“That’s a firmly rooted mind-set among everyone who works
from a traditional utility planning perspective.”
On RETI’s bombshell finding on distributed generation through rooftop
solar, Pletka observes, “We present this new information on photovoltaics
to people, and it’s still not sinking in. It would cause a major
shift in how we plan.”
Indeed it would. “Use local, renewable energy” is among the
goals, policies and implementation strategies of the Conservation and
Open Space Element. The energy chapter now states that “an increase
in the use of renewable energy resources to generate a local supply of
sustainable energy” is a major issue for the county, one which “will
require some revisions to County ordinances and policies.”
New Conservation and Open Space Element policies are devoted to small-scale
renewable energy resources and encouraging distributed energy. An implementation
strategy requiring the county to “develop a plan to achieve the
2020 target using a distributive approach to generation” are all
in the mix.
California still needs to build some solar power plants that are properly
sited to avoid significant environmental impacts on fragile habitat and
endangered species. But, says Pletka, it’s not as many as we thought
we did to meet the state’s need for 60,000 gigawatts of renewable
power by 2020.
This is the new reality of solar power. When it comes to generating renewable
energy in San Luis Obispo County, the technology that delivers the most
jobs, inflicts the least environmental impact and provides the fastest
path to the creation of a smart grid should be our preference, with the
policies and ordinances in place to support it. The Conservation and Open
Space Element can help make distributed rooftop solar power — commercial,
residential and over parking lots — happen here in a big way.
On Thursday, you might want to drop by the county Government Center and
congratulate the Planning Commission for getting out in front of the curve
and helping us all take a big step into the sunlight.
Karen Merriam is chairwoman of the Santa
Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club.