US Approves New Renewable Projects as Major Polluters Seek to Control America's Energy Future
March 14, 2013
San Jose Mercury-News & Gar Smith / Earth Island Journal
The Obama administration on Wednesday approved three large renewable energy projects in the West, including what will be one of the world's largest solar developments. "They are the blueprint, the bible if you will, of where solar energy will go on public lands in the years ahead," Energy Department chief Ken Salazar said. One of the beneficiaries of this gift of federal lands and taxpayer dollars is Duke Energy, a coal-burning power company and a major air polluter.
Feds Approve 3 major Renewable Energy Projects in West
The San Jose Mercury-News
(March 13, 2013) -- The Obama administration on Wednesday approved three large renewable energy projects in the West, including what will be one of the world's largest solar developments, that combined will produce enough energy to power 340,000 homes.
The projects, to be built mostly on federal lands in California and Nevada but funded privately, were announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a press conference in San Francisco.
The approvals were for two solar and one wind projects, including NextEra Energy Inc's 750-megawatt McCoy Solar Energy Project near the Southern California city of Blythe in Riverside County that stands to be one of the largest solar developments in the world.
The other two projects are the 150-megawatt Desert Harvest Solar Farm proposed by EDF Renewable Energy, also in Riverside County, and the 200-megawatt Searchlight Wind Energy Project in Nevada, south of Las Vegas. Searchlight, which is being developed by Duke Energy Corp, will use Siemens wind turbines. Both solar projects will use photovoltaic solar panels.
Wednesday's action brings the total number of renewable energy projects approved by the administration to 37 -- including 20 solar facilities, eight wind farms and nine geothermal plants with associated transmission corridors and infrastructure to connect to established power grids.
The two California projects are located in one of the nation's 17 solar-energy zones -- areas the administration has identified as well suited for solar energy projects due to high levels of sunlight, proximity to transmission lines, and limited impact on wildlife in the area.
"They are the blueprint, the bible if you will, of where solar energy will go on public lands in the years ahead," Salazar said.
The renewable energy zones encompass 285,000 acres of public lands across six western states. California Governor Jerry Brown said the new projects will advance the state's position as a leader in the fight against climate change.
Privatizing Sunbeams: How Yesterday's Energy Corporations Work with Government to Control the Country's Energy Future
Gar Smith / Earth Island Journal
On June 28, the US Energy Information Administration announced that -- for the first time -- renewable energy trumped nuclear as a major source of power. For the first quarter of 2011, renewables provided 5 percent more electricity than nuclear reactors and matched three-quarters of the power provided by domestic crude oil. Taken together, renewables provided nearly 12 percent of US energy output. The leading contributors were biomass/biofuels (48 percent), hydropower (35 percent), and wind (12 percent), followed by geothermal and solar.
When it comes to growth, the big winner was solar. Compared to the first quarter of 2010, solar-electric production soared 104 percent, outpacing even wind (40 percent) and hydropower (28 percent). While renewables surged, electricity from natural gas rose a meager 1.8 percent, nuclear flat-lined, and coal fell 5 percent. Naturally, congressional Republicans greeted this news with calls for more nuclear bailouts and a push to gut federal investment in renewables.
Meanwhile, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a $1.2 billion loan guarantee to help SunPower build a 250-MW centralized solar plant in Southern California and another $2.1 billion loan guarantee to Solar Trust of America for the first of two 242-MW solar-thermal electricity plants. As Solar Trust's CEO noted, the money would help kick-start "a new era of utility-scale solar development."
On the surface, that sounds like good news. Go deeper, though, and you can unearth the real agenda here: These plants are built to serve large commercial interests. That's right. In addition to the old bogeymen of Big Oil and Big Coal, we are now looking at the birth of Big Sol.
"[The US] can either sit on the sidelines and watch the competition pass us by, or we can get in the race and play to win," DOE Secretary Dr. Steven Chu proclaimed. But Solar Trust is a joint venture of two German firms -- Solar Millennium AG and Ferrostaal Inc. -- while SunPower is controlled by the French oil giant Total. Foreign ownership is one problem, corporate control is another. Solar Trust has partnered with Chevron while SunPower will supply PG&E, California's largest private utility.
As David Myers observed in the Autumn 2010 Journal, "There is a corporate lobbying push to focus federal stimulus funds on projects that keep renewable energy ‘behind-the-meter.' In other words, to stop the democratization of energy."
So how can we short-circuit the corporate control of sunshine? Through diversity. Instead of imposing vast, mirrored complexes on untrammeled wilderness, solar farms can be planted atop urban brownfields, parking structures, and shopping malls.
Ultimately, the antidote to corporate centralization is decentralized microgeneration -- a solar array for every home. In California, residential and commercial rooftops are projected to generate 40,000-70,000 MW -- more than the state consumes on the hottest summer day. But Big Sol has some tricks for reducing the economic competitiveness of sunbeams that are harnessed right off your rooftop.
Here's how: Under "net-metering" programs, utilities offer "credits" for excess power grabbed by their central grid whenever a homeowner's electric meters "spin backwards." The utility profits by reselling this free excess power at a premium.
As energy analyst Robert Freehling notes, net-metering can put photovoltaics "in conflict with efficiency and conservation efforts" because it favors "energy hogs that use three or more times the ‘baseline' amount of electricity."
A better approach is the feed-in tariff (FIT), a system that pays businesses and homeowners directly for excess solar production at an agreed-upon price. Thanks to FITs, homeowners in Ontario, Canada, receive between 53.9 and 71.3 Canadian cents/kW for their excess rooftop power -- more than commercial generators receive.
In Germany, where FITs rule, citizens pay 40 percent less to go solar than net-metered Americans. FIT expert Paul Gipe argues that adopting Germany's feed-in tariffs would save US ratepayers money "and result in windfall profits." Not surprisingly, Big Sol prefers net-metering.
Concentrating photons in the hands of an energy elite prioritizes stockholder gain above avoiding biosphere pain. Off-the-grid independence is the ideal. Short of that, we can still cast a shadow over Big Sol's power grab by demanding a FIT price for farming photons from atop our own solar homesteads.
Gar Smith is the Journal’s Editor Emeritus and author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green, October 2012).
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.