Solar power for the people

Julie Cart / Los Angeles Times /

Published Jan 5, 2013 at 04:00AM

NIPTON, Calif. — Gerald Freeman unlocks the gate to the small power plant and goes inside. Three rows of solar collectors, elevated on troughs that track the sun’s arc like sunflowers, afford a glimpse of the West’s possible energy future.

This facility and a smaller version across the road produce some 70 kilowatts of electricity, about 80 percent of the power required by Nipton’s 60 residents, its general store and motel.

Freeman, a Caltech-trained geologist and onetime gold mine owner, understood when he bought this former California ghost town near the Nevada border that being off the grid didn’t have to mean going without power.

He contracted with a Bay Area company to install solar arrays on two plots of land. The town has a 20-year agreement to buy its power at a below-market rate.

Projects like these make do with scant financing opportunities and little support from the federal government.

The Obama administration’s solar-power initiative has fast-tracked large-scale plants, fueled by low-interest, government-guaranteed loans that cover up to 80 percent of construction costs. In all, the feds have paid out more than $16 billion for renewable-energy projects.

Those large-scale projects are financially efficient for developers, but their size creates transmission inefficiencies and higher costs for ratepayers.

Smaller alternatives, from rooftop solar to small- and medium-sized plants, can do the opposite.

Collectively, modest-sized projects could provide an enormous electricity boost — and do so for less cost to consumers and less environmental damage to the desert areas where most are located, say advocates of small-scale solar power.

Recent studies project that California could derive a substantial percentage of its energy needs from rooftop solar installations, whether on suburban homes or city roofs or atop big-box stores.

Janine Blaeloch, director of the nonprofit Western Lands Project, said smaller plants were never on the table when the federal solar policy was conceived early in President Barack Obama’s first term.

Utilities and solar developers wanted big plants, so that’s what’s sprouting in Western deserts, she said.

“There was a pivot point when they could have gone to the less-damaging alternative,” Blaeloch said, referring to both federal officials and environmental groups that have supported large-scale solar projects. “There’s no question that it was a matter of choice, and it was the wrong choice.”

Cutting out the middleman

Built in far-flung locations where there is plenty of open land, large-scale plants require utilities to put up extensive transmission lines to connect to the grid.

Utilities charge ratepayers for every dollar spent building transmission lines, for which the state of California guarantees utilities an annual return of 11 percent for 40 years.

By comparison, small-scale plants can be built near population centers and provide power directly to consumers, reducing the demand for electricity from the grid.

Rooftop solar goes one step further.

It not only cuts demand from the grid, but also can allow homeowners and businesses to sell back excess power.

Falling startup costs also have brought solar power within reach for many homeowners and small businesses.

Take Californians. In the last six years, the cost in Los Angeles to install a medium-sized solar system — between 50 kilowatts and 1 megawatt — has fallen by 55 percent, said J.R. DeShazo, an environmental economist at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Even though prices are coming down, Ray Brady, manager of the federal Bureau of Land Management’s renewable-energy program, said he has seen little interest in smaller-scale projects.

The agency has policies that provide incentives for developers to build smaller solar plants on federal land, including exempting projects from costly and time-consuming environmental reviews.

But Brady said that he could think of none in the works.

“We can only respond where there is an industry interest to do so,” he said, citing economies of scale that can make large power plants more cost-effective for developers.

Large-scale projects

Late last year, federal officials approved a plan that sets aside 445 square miles of public land for the development of large-scale solar power plants, cementing a new government approach to renewable energy development in the West after years of delays and false starts.

The plan replaced the Interior Department’s 2005-era first-come, first-served system of approving solar projects, which let developers choose where they wanted to build utility-scale solar sites and allowed for land speculation. Instead, the department will direct development to land it has identified as having fewer wildlife and natural-resource obstacles, according to previous reports. The government is establishing 17 new “solar energy zones” on 285,000 acres in six states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. More than half of the land is in Southern California.

Incentives to go small

For its part, California has been more proactive in encouraging smaller projects. Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Solar Initiative has set a target of 12,000 megawatts of energy derived from rooftop panels.

The program offers support for homebuilders who construct super-energy-efficient homes with photovoltaic panels.

Evan Gillespie, who heads up the Sierra Club’s renewable-energy programs in California, has worked to bring more uniformity to fees and permitting for rooftop solar, a statewide effort that he says has reduced the cost of a small residential system by $2,500.

“We want to make sure that in the next two to three years, we are removing as much friction from the marketplace as possible,” he said. “There’s a lot of work we need to do to get out of our own way.”

Even with the streamlining, experts estimate that a sizable percentage of households cannot participate in the benefits of a residential rooftop system, primarily because they are renters. The same is true for most businesses, which often lease or rent space.

Back in Nipton, Freeman has already seen glimmers of hope. The town is just a few miles from Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc.’s 3,500-acre power plant, visible across Interstate 15.

When the $2.2 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is completed, it will be the largest solar-thermal power plant in the world, producing 370 megawatts of electricity, enough to power roughly 140,000 homes.

If things go according to plan, Nipton could eventually produce as much as 1 megawatt of power, which Freeman hopes to sell to the Southern California Edison utility, which in turn provides electricity that helps run a small portion of the sprawling Ivanpah facility.

It’s possible that Nipton could provide some power to its giant solar-power neighbor.

“That would be something,” Freeman said.

Government financing may go to the big plants, but modest-sized solar projects, from the street to your backyard, together could provide a much-needed jolt to the power grid — and do so for less cost to consumers and less environmental damage to the land.