The Sun Rises in the West
By Gar Smith / The-Edge
July 31, 2004
It's summertime in San Francisco and seagulls, temperatures and gas prices are soaring. While SUV owners impatiently creep-and-beep down Second Street's sweltering asphalt, a couple of activists are hunkered down in the top floor of a nearby Mission District building working on real-life solutions to oil profiteering and global warming. David Hochschild and Adam Browning are the mainstays of VoteSolar.org, one of the pioneering nonprofits that are transforming San Francisco into the world's leading solar-powered City.
|A panel of experts. With the Oil Age about to end, the industrialized world faces an energy calamity. Vote Solar's JP Ross, Adam Browning and David Hochschild hold a solution in their hands. CREDIT: Gar Smith / The-Edge|
The centerpiece of SF's visionary 360-MW Electricity Resource Plan is a 50-MW Solar Power Facility -- a "pipeline of projects" that could cover up to 250 acres of commercial, residential and government rooftops with photovoltaic panels capable of generating 10 percent of the City's power. Boosted by another 50-MW of power from wind, hydrogen and tidal power and an additional 100 MW in savings from inexpensive energy conservation measures, SF's green-power infrastructure would boast the world's largest solar-power system.
Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has vaulted onto the solar bandwagon, endorsing a plan for half of the 125,000 new homes built in California each year to be equipped with solar power.
"This is actually not an achievable goal since there's just not enough manufacturing capacity at this point," VoteSolar's Director of Operations Adam Browning confides, but, he adds, "there's a lot of value in having a really bold idea out there." And some of the boldest ideas out there are coming out of Fog City.
On an average day, SF consumes 850 MW of electricity (650 MW at night). Because electric-power comprises the largest industrial sector in America (accounting for a third of the US economy and generating more cash-flow than telecommunications or the airline industry), choosing where your electrons come from is a serous matter. The US electricity sector is the single largest contributor to worldwide climate change (and the major source of air pollution and radioactive wastes). Powerplant pollution remains one of the leading causes of childhood asthma. But since electricity is so essential to wall-socket economies, the power industry has become one of the country's most powerful (if generally unrecognized) special interests.
On May 11, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors aimed a stake at the heart of Big Energy when it passed Supervisor Tom Ammiano's Energy Independence Ordinance giving city residents and businesses the right to switch to "green" electric power. By 2005, the City's old energy diet of oil, natural gas and nuclear power will be replaced by a banquet of photovoltaic panels, distributed-generation fuel cells, wind turbines, hydrogen-power, energy efficiency, and conservation technologies. An ingenious $100-million Solar Bond Authority that pays for the change-over out of energy savings, should accomplished the transformation without a rate increase.
The City's move to green power was abetted by Assemblywoman Carole Migden's Community Choice law (AB117), which permits communities to abandon commercial suppliers like Pacific Gas & Electric and purchase power from green-energy providers. Community Choice power providers can mix solar with less expensive technologies to lower the cost of electricity to compete with PG&E.
"Energy independence offers ... permanent protection against future energy crises and hard savings that cannot be taken away," Ammiano boasts. "We can work towards closing the City's polluting power plants and make the City comply with the Kyoto Treaty, all at the same rates PG&E charges. Now I call that a bargain."
The View from VoteSolar
|Can you picture the Superbowl filled with an LNG supertanker? The fact is, it would take three Superbowls to contain one of these massive vessels!|
VoteSolar's Director of Programs, David Hochschild, a tall, sandy-haired, and easy-going gentleman, has just returned from an around-the-world trip with his wife. His encounters abroad have prompted him to start work on a book detailing the world's changing attitudes about America. "It's not a pretty picture," he sighs. But if there's one thing that might help restore America's profile, it's weaning the country from its dependence on foreign oil -- and the military might currently deployed to control this increasingly limited resource.
San Francisco is one of the cities playing midwife to the birth of a solar-based 21st century economy. Hochschild happily ticks off the accomplishments: "We've got a 675-kW system in place at Moscone Center. Construction on 250-kW solar array in the southeast City will begin in July. A couple of port buildings -- Pier 96 and Pier 50 -- and Moscone West are all in the pipeline."
How do you choose which rooftops to solarize? "We do a solar survey to select best buildings," Hochschild explains. San Francisco has two rate structures for electricity. "Enterprise fund" rates pay 15 cents/kWh while "general fund" rates pay 3.5 kWh. "Of course, it makes more sense to have solar on the buildings that pay the higher rates so they pay for themselves sooner."
"The Moscone Center is a good example of what we're trying to do," Hochschild says. "It's a $7.4-million project -- $3.2 million goes to efficiency and $4.2 million goes to solar. Essentially what you're doing is combining the energy savings and efficiency in solar to produce an overall payback that's very short. The Moscone project has an eight-year simple payback while solar-panels have a life of 35-plus years."
Wind power is part of the City's plan but don't expect to see propeller blades sprouting from Coit Tower. "Wind power is pretty unlikely in the city," Hochschild shrugs. "It's more likely to be on land that the City owns near Hetch Hetchy [in Yosemite National Park]."
The Hydrogen Hype-way
Governor Schwarzenegger has received a lot of positive press for his vision of a "Hydrogen Highway." But talk to energy insiders and it becomes clear that the proposed hydrogen solution is a fiction that could actually terminate the birth of a true solar revolution in California.
The hydrogen needed to fuel the governor's green road map would come from natural gas, Browning explains. "But the natural gas that comes into California already feeds the existing powerplant structure. There's not enough additional natural gas to feed the Hydrogen Highway." The governor and the Bush administration plan to fuel the "hydrogen economy" by importing tons of liquified natural gas (LNG), a volatile oil industry by-product that has serious environmental impacts.
Paul Fenn is the Director of the Oakland-based advocacy group Local Power. He is also the author of San Francisco's Energy Independence Ordinance, California's Community Choice law (AB117) and San Francisco's 2001 voter-approved Solar Bond Authority. Pacing the floor in the sunlit upper floor of his red-barn home in rural Canyon, California, Fenn is cordial but emphatic.
"With all the fanfare about Hydrogen Highways and the state renewable energy law, you get the impression that our bipartisan leaders share the public enthusiasm for green power," he says. But the fact is that Sempra, Calpine and other powerful energy interests are working overtime to lock their ratepayers into long-term natural gas contracts tied to planned LNG terminals in Long Beach and in Baja California. If the plan succeeds, Fenn warns, "natural gas imported from oil fields in the Middle East, Indonesia or Algeria may soon be the only source of fuel for many of Southern California's electric ratepayers."
"The industry is exploiting fears of rolling blackouts to make California dependent on imported foreign gas," Fenn scowls. But any decrease in available domestic gas supplies can easily be met with existing renewable energy, efficiency and conservation measures. Besides, he adds, it wasn't gas shortages that caused the blackouts of 2001, it was "energy supply manipulation by the gas suppliers." Some of these same suppliers would benefit from the LNG import scheme, which could give them "even more market power to manipulate gas and electricity prices in the future."
In May, at a Global LNG Summit in San Diego, Sempra Energy began pushing state regulators to make ratepayers foot the bill for its multibillion-dollar LNG investments. Under Sempra's scenario, 20% of the state's new natural gas would come from the Middle East, Africa, Russia and Asia. But given the fact that fuel makes up 90% of a powerplant's lifetime cost, is it really smart to bet our future on pressurized gas shipped halfway around the world?
With three million customers demanding green energy, Sempra (which owns San Diego Gas & Electric) hopes to protect its profits by locking customers into ten-year natural gas contract with Calpine. SDG&E's customers would also be forced to purchase a new 500-MW power plant -- from another Sempra affiliate. "Sempra is clearly calling the shots," Fenn says. The result is "a supply chain involving several regulated and unregulated affiliates ... lined up in a classic vertical monopoly integration that used to land people in jail."
"If Sempra, Edison and PG&E ultimately prevail in bringing LNG and new gas-fired power plants to California," Fenn warns, we will have squandered "California's major policy opportunity to steer a course out of the Climate Crisis."
Citizens Tell Arnold: 'Don't Pass Gas'
While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, when it comes to global warming, natural gas is 17 times more reactive than carbon dioxide. The natural gas lost to leaks from pipes and tanks during transport and storage accounts for 25% of the state's release of greenhouse gases.
"Natural gas is not natural," Fenn notes. Before it can be used, LNG must be liquified to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit and shipped to distant terminal inside 12-story-tall tankers, each longer than three football fields and holding more than 33 million gallons of LNG. In their book, Brittle Power, Amory and Hunter Lovins estimated that the explosive potential of a single 125,000-cubic-meter LNG tanker was "equivalent to ... about 55 Hiroshima bombs."
In January, an LNG facility in Algeria exploded, incinerating 276 workers and shattering windows seven miles away. The proposed terminal in Long Beach harbor would be built on unstable landfill, near an active earthquake fault. Congressional studies have identified LNG terminals as "serious" terrorist targets. According to US antiterrorist czar Richard Clarke, members of Al Qaeda have stowed away on LNG tankers destined for Boston Harbor. Despite these downsides, the Bush administration is prepared to preempt state laws to force construction of an LNG terminal in Long Beach.
"The move to LNG is a massive political failure that must be renounced by Senator Feinstein and Governor Schwarzenegger," Fenn insists. "We do not need the gas. With San Francisco moving on its Energy Independence plan to build the world's greatest green power network, a buildable alternative to gas has arrived."
The Renewables Revolution
If LNG is the biggest threat to the dawn of a Clean Energy Century in California, spirited citizen activism is the biggest threat to the LNG's Old Energy Lobby. Over the past two years, grassroots campaigns have blocked LNG terminals in Eureka and Vallejo and each defeat for LNG has cleared the path for clean energy alternatives.
VoteSolar's mission is to encourage cities nationwide to follow San Francisco's example and the message is being heard. New solar initiatives are underway in Marin, Fresno, Santa Cruz, Honolulu, New Mexico and New Jersey. The goal, Browning says, is to "help the solar industry build economies of scale, bringing down solar's costs, and letting market forces do something for global warming that even Dick Cheney couldn't stop."
San Diego's mayor has made a 10-year, 50-MW commitment to solar and renewable alternatives. At last year's Solar Cities Summit, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown committed his city to installing 5 MW of solar power. If all of Oakland's pending proposals get the green light, VoteSolar's Browning says, Oakland will "exceed the solar in place in San Francisco. If there isn't a competitive spirit yet," he grins, "There should be."
Adding to Oakland's competitive edge, Mayor Brown recently hired Rainforest Action Network Founder Randy Hayes as his new Sustainability Director. Hayes has set a goal of turning Oakland into a 100% renewably powered city within 25 years. Within the year, Oakland plans to install 5-MW-worth of solar-electric panels on housing and apartment projects, 16 city-owned buildings, the Oakland Coliseum, the Federal Express building at the Oakland Airport and the Chabot Space & Science Center.
The state has set a goal of 20% renewable energy by 2017 but many Bay Area cities are on track to reach 40% renewable levels by that time. "Climate change problems aren't getting solved at the international or national levers," Hayes observes, "so governments at the local level need to show leadership, courage and moxie."
Greenpeace USA's energy advocate Kristin Casper sums it up nicely: "Renewable energy is a power source that is local, secure and price-competitive, right here in California. It's clean, and it creates jobs for Californians. Why ship this dirty fuel halfway around the world, when the alternative is all around us?"
If you want a windmill or solar panel in your back yard, contact Paul Fenn (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Local Power, 4281 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland CA 9461, (510) 451-1727. www.local.org
For background on the dangers of LNG tankers, see: timrileylaw.com/LNG_TANKERS.htm
A version of this article first appeared in the August edition of Common Ground magazine:
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