Combating Climate Change with Local Clean Energy
Polls consistently show that s olar photovoltaics (PV) are the most popular energy source among consumers. Still, these semiconductors that generate electricity directly from sunlight produce less than one half of one percent of the world’s total electricity.
The prime obstacle to widespread deployment of solar PV is cost. One way to lower costs is to design community-based programs that achieve economy of scale and reach markets that have yet to tap solar energy in a big way.
Marin County , as well as other communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, are currently investigating “Community Choice Aggregation” (CCA), a a new way for cities and counties to purchase electricity. Local governments can now represent constituents-at-large in the fight against climate change. The CCA process provides an easy way to change the content of the power supply – by a vote of each local government -- without taking on the burden of managing the power lines, collecting bills, and the divisive politics involved with the typically highly contested (and expensive) municipalization process.
Under the proposed business plan for Marin County’s CCA – also known as Marin Clean Energy -- the goal is to obtain 100 percent of the supply from renewable energy sources. This all green energy plan would cut Marin’s overall total greenhouse gas emissions by 7 to 9 percent. Studies show that Marin County could get the vast majority of its power from solar PV systems located within the County’s boundaries, but the cost would be astronomical.
I received a grant from the Marin Community Foundation to explore new models of solar energy development to help the County reach this ambitious all-renewable energy target.
The first is “community Solar” which refers to the ability of multiple users to purchase a portion of their electricity from a solar facility located off-site. According to Don Smith, a board member of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District (BCPUD), this model makes inherent sense for Marin County “Placing large solar arrays at optimum locations around the County is simply much more efficient than having little ‘behind-the-meter’ arrays on individual rooftops as is required under the current net metering rules,” said Smith. “It has been very frustrating for me as a community solar advocate to be mired in regulations that unnecessarily complicate and impede the implementation of this crucial energy source. How can we get this model underway in Marin?”
The second model is the “Solar Safety Net.” When the grid crashes, grid-connected solar PV arrays go down too, an occurrence that is likely to be more frequent with climate change. New solar PV inverter technologies safely allow for partial back-up of solar arrays, allowing these renewable sources to displace dirty diesel generators only fired up during outages.
“The Solar Safety Net concept makes perfect sense,” Jerry Lunsford, technical director at the Dance Palace, a community center and federal disaster relief center located in Point Reyes Station. It will be installing the nation’s first Solar Safety Net in May. “In the event of a catastrophic winter storm or earthquake, the Dance Palace could be without the basic needs of power, light and heat for many hours or days. Having a small battery based backup system will allow us to meet the basic survival needs of our neighbors and the community for an extended period of time,” he said.
This kind of “out of the box” type thinking is necessary to make the most of the opportunity provided by climate change and allow Marin County to be a leader in developing novel solutions to the conundrum of energy.