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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 the reporter.

“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.


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Explore, Enjoy and Protect - Santa Lucia Chapter hike in Machesna Wilderness
Machesna Wilderness hike
April 2002
Photo by Gary Felsman