By Jay Powell
Last week state Public Utilities Commissioners at a March 21 hearing threw down the gauntlet. Declaring that the sun don’t always shine and we have to guarantee reliable power for SDGE customers, they said San Diego had two, maybe three years to convince them not to let SDGE charge its customers for two new proposed gas-fired “peaker” power plants.
Peaking power is needed usually on the hottest days when air conditioners and other appliances and equipment are cranked up full. This is, of course when solar photovoltaic panels are at their optimum output. But there is a purported catch. SDGE and conventional power plant developers claim that there is a lag time in the late afternoon when solar generators output is waning, but peak loads continue to require more electricity. That is one of their key arguments for a new kind of peaker plant that best runs in an “intermittent mode”. They even claim that these plants are essential to promote more renewable energy.
So what is it going to take to meet this challenge? First, we are going to have to recognize that the deck is heavily stacked in favor of SDGE and conventional power plant developers. In spite of the promise and demonstrated potential of solar energy and energy efficiency, the current energy supply paradigm favors building more power plants and more transmission lines. The regulatory framework is set to reward that kind of system. Since the PUC is required to provide the investor owned utilities (IOUs) like SDGE a guaranteed rate of return on their asset base, the more they build and own, the more they make.
The choice is now before us: perpetuate this 20th Century model or move to a neighborhood-based, 21st Century model that takes advantage of energy efficiency and advances in solar technology and energy management and storage. The reality is that we will need a certain ”baseload” capacity that is largely fossil fueled. But we already have a surplus in that capacity—even with San Onofre Nuclear Generating Stations (SONGS) shut down.
What we can’t afford to do is to continue to build more un-needed power plants under the guise of reliability, because these facilities further inflate the rate-base and load on customer’s bills. Already the state legislature has put in place mechanisms to create consumer choice, not just in appliances, but the energy market. One possible means to achieve a new energy future is Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). The local San Diego Energy District Foundation is conducting a study this year to evaluate how we can set up options for customers to purchase from other power producers.
But this option, as established in other areas, could still result in a lowest-apparent-cost choice which favors gas and oil powered plants that are subsidized directly or through externalizing the costs of imposing risks on critical resources such as natural water supplies. Even renewable sources such as solar and wind located on current open space lands impose costs directly on the environment and from the transmission facilities.
So you don’t even want solar and wind? Not when it is built where it imposes unnecessary costs and there is a better alternative. Doesn’t it make sense to use already developed land near the power users as the first priority to generate power? In fact, state energy policy says that energy efficiency and local user generated solar power are the number one priorities (first in the “loading order”) along with energy demand management for meeting our energy needs. There is a conservative estimate of over 7,000 Megawatts potential solar electric generation from existing roof tops and parking lots in San Diego County. That is over three times the entire output of SONGS, and nearly 16 times SDGE’s share of SONGS power.
The new paradigm to meet the challenge by the PUC is to set up neighborhood-based systems that integrate with the existing power distribution system, that use the existing power lines and already available and developing energy management and storage technology to complement the extraordinary potential of local solar generation.
While state agencies continue to promote the use of gas-fired peaker plants as essential to fill in power periods when the sun isn’t shining or the wind is isn’t blowing, the fact is that technology is far outstripping the current institutional framework. Recently representatives from General Electric, the Navy and even SDGE highlighted the use of technologies to create “micro grids” that can operate separately or connected to the overall county and statewide electric grid. Such a system is being set up in Borrego Springs as a pilot demonstration on a community scale to evaluate a number of energy management systems, many of which could facilitate a neighborhood-based energy system.
Imagine two different pictures to characterize our energy choice. The one we have now is reliance on importing energy into neighborhoods, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, while we export dollars and jobs. The other picture is to generate energy from within our neighborhoods from homes, apartments, businesses, covering parking lots and other developed lands, literally pushing energy out from within along the powerlines located on our public right of way while importing and capturing dollars and jobs.
If we start measuring the flow of energy used versus that created and saved and the amount of green house gases and trash generated by neighborhood and community, we will have a means to incentivize those who are a part of the solution versus the problem. As an example of this approach, Seattle is moving forward on a “pay for performance” program to promote energy efficiency in new commercial building construction.
The added economic benefit is that local solar energy generated from roof tops and parking lot covers can and will create more sustainable, better paying jobs. The state estimates that each 100 MWs of local solar power creates 150 permanent jobs. The two peaker power plants proposed by SDGE might employ up to 200-300 during the relatively short construction period but will provide only 20-23 permanent jobs. This will cost utility customers over $1.5 Billion over the next twenty years.
In a recent commentary published by U-T San Diego the following questions were posed: ” “What if you had a choice of getting electricity that is generated in your own neighborhood or you could order the electricity from a monopoly whose profits depend on building more and more generating plants and transmission facilities? What if the electricity you and your neighbors generated was located on existing roof tops and parking lots in your neighborhood and didn’t require covering any more open space or agricultural lands in San Diego County? And what if these rooftop and parking lot power plants didn’t use any fossil fuels?”
We should add to that list the question “what if you could choose to lower your energy bill, while creating thousands of jobs and a more stable and sustainable energy system for San Diego?” We are at that decision point to choose our energy future. The PUC challenge is our opportunity.
Earlier this month Mayor Bob Filner hosted a “solar summit” with Supervisors Diane Jacobs and Dave Roberts to commit to leading a solar initiative with rapid installation of solar power on municipal buildings and facilities. They also committed to promoting new local solar energy districts and pursuing financing programs that make solar and energy efficiency improvements available to more San Diego homes and businesses.
We need to thank them and State Senator Marty Block and Councilmember Sherman for showing up at the PUC hearing, opposing more fossil fueled power plants and recognizing the need to set up energy districts and financing mechanisms that will make it possible for all San Diegans to generate energy in and for their neighborhoods. Please let your representatives know you want Neighborhood Power. Now. Remember, the PUC clock is ticking.
Jay Powell is a member of the San Diego Sierra Club “Run with the Sun” campaign and retired Executive Director of the City Heights Community Development Corp. He and his wife own and operate their own 2.5 KW solar “peaker” power plant from the roof of their home in Normal Heights. For more information on how to participate in the Run with the Sun campaign and promote neighborhood energy cooperations, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.