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Update October 2012: The 2011 Wind Technologies Market Report shows weak, but consistent economies of scale in wind power projects. It seems obvious: every extra turbine in a wind farm comes at a lower incremental cost, making the biggest wind power projects the most cost effective per kilowatt of capacity. If you bet $20 on… Continue reading
Update 8/23/11: While solar can be built right under high voltage transmission lines, it can’t necessarily interconnect right at the tower. Thus, this piece should be read as an analysis of land use rather than easy interconnection.
What if the U.S. could get 20 percent of its power from solar, near transmission lines, and without covering virgin desert?
It can. Transmission right-of-way corridors, vast swaths of vegetation-free landscape to protect high-voltage power lines, could provide enough space for over 600,000 megawatts of solar PV. These arrays could provide enough electricity to meet 20% of the country’s electric needs.
It starts with the federal Government Accountability Office, which estimates there are 155,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the United States (defined as lines 230 kilovolts and higher). According to at least two major utilities (Duke Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority), such power lines require a minimum of 150 feet of right-of-way, land generally cleared of all significant vegetation that might come in contact with the power lines.
That’s 4,400 square miles of already developed (or denuded) land for solar power, right under existing grid infrastructure.
Of course, the power lines themselves cause some shading, as may nearby trees (although the New York Public Service Commission, and likely other PSCs, has height limits on nearby trees that would minimize shading on the actual right-of-way). To be conservative, we’ll assume that half of transmission line right-of-way is unsuitable for solar.
That leaves 2,200 square miles of available land for solar. With approximately 275 megawatts (MW) able to be installed per square mile, over 600,000 MW of solar could occupy the available right-of-way, providing enough electricity (over 720 billion kilowatt-hours) to supply 20 percent of U.S. power demands (note: we used the average annual solar insolation in Cincinnati as a proxy for the U.S. as a whole).
Making big strides toward a renewable energy future doesn’t require massive, remote solar projects, but can use existing infrastructure or land to generate significant portions of our electricity demand. Transmission right-of-way, providing 20% of U.S. electricity from solar, is just one piece of the puzzle, with another 20% possible using existing rooftops and a solar potential of nearly 100% from solar on highway right-of-way. Solar can help achieve a 100% clean – and local – energy future.
Commentary by Al Weinrub, August 10, 2011
Jerry Brown led off his conference of 250 high level renewable energy stakeholders July 25-26, 2011 by calling for a “more secure, more sustainable, more American” energy system. The conference was organized to help chart the path to 12,000 MW of local renewable power by 2020, as called for by the Governor.
Key to achieving the 12,000 megawatts will be overcoming significant obstacles, among them being bureaucratic approval and permitting barriers, grid integration and interconnect difficulties, and finding appropriate amounts of investment capital. And, of course, building political consensus.
The conference started off with a bang as the governor, referring to some of these obstacles, blatantly asserted that “some kind of opposition you have to crush.”
With that auspicious beginning, and after the Governor and press cameras had departed, two intensive days of deliberation began. The by-invitation-only participants consisted of about 50% renewable industry representatives and consultants, 25% government personnel (the governor’s staff, energy agency commissioners and staff, a few legislators, and county and regional agency representatives), and the remainder representing investor-owned and municipal utilities, a few unions, financial institutions, environmentalists, and a smattering of decentralized/distributed generation advocates.
There seemed to be a great deal of consensus at the conference about the need to streamline renewable energy project approvals across the plethora of government agencies that are often involved, and also about the need for utilities to be more forthcoming about technical data required by project developers. There was much less consensus, however, about what kind of projects would be developed, where, and by whom.
In fact, the main contention at the conference was between those who emphasized least cost of energy as the main criteria for decentralized generation projects and those who stressed other values, such as local economic development, jobs, equity, community health, and the like. The conflict was framed in many ways, but emerged most directly between those parties who advocated for large projects (5 – 20 MW) through a renewable auction mechanism (RAM and those who advocated for community-scale projects (0 -5 MW) promoted through a feed-in tariff mechanism.
Not surprisingly, the utilities and big developers like Recurrent Energy were pushing the least-cost criteria, calling for the 12,000 MW to be developed as larger 10 -20 MW ground-mounted solar PV projects close to transmission substations and selected through a RAM program. Surprisingly, they were joined by The Utility Reform Network (TURN), which argued that this approach would result in the least cost of energy and hence best protection of ratepayers.
The other side included the Los Angeles Business Council, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, the Clean Coalition, the Local Clean Energy Alliance, Solar Done Right, and other long-time decentralized generation advocates who called for the 12,000 MW to be developed as smaller-scale projects in urbanized areas where economic recovery, jobs, equity, and health are key goals. These parties argued for a comprehensive feed-in tariff program that would promote this type of local renewable development. They also argued against the prevailing assumption that larger scale projects are less expensive, pointing not only to rapidly declining prices for solar PV installations, but to a fuller set of socio-economic costs and benefits, which the big players conveniently ignored.
Amidst the palpable jubilation of the renewable energy industry over Brown’s commitment to local renewable energy, the Governor’s conference revealed emerging battle lines over how that 12,000 MW target will be deployed. Will California’s “local” renewable energy projects primarily represent the interests of the big industry players or the interests of local communities?
This is a question for which the stakes are high; whether California will go down the old road (simply calling it something new) or whether it will take a qualitatively different approach. If the representation of invitees at this conference is indicative of the Governor’s leanings, there is reason for concern, if not alarm. Despite Brown’s campaign platform of more democracy and more local control, there was very little community present at this conference.
A political battle over who will benefit from decentralized/distributed generation of renewable energy is shaping up. This is a battle for which our communities will need to mobilize if we are not to be first marginalized and then regarded as an opposition to be crushed.
Over at Climate Progress, Stephen Lacey recently asked why there isn’t more development of micro hydro in the U.S., given its potential to provide more than 30,000 low-cost megawatts of power to U.S. states (and bipartisan political support).
We can’t answer that question any better than Stephen, but we can provide a good illustration of that potential, replicating a map from our 2010 report Energy Self-Reliant States (click here for a larger version):
New Micro Hydro Power Potential (Percent of State Electricity Sales)
The Germans have installed over 10,000 megawatts of solar panels in the past two years, enough to power 2 million American homes (most of Los Angeles, CA). If Americans installed local solar at the same torrid pace, we could already power most of the Mountain West, could have a 100 percent solar nation by 2026, while enriching thousands of local communities with new development and jobs.
The following map shows the states that could be powered by solar if the U.S. kept pace with Germany on solar power in the past two years (installed the same megawatts on a per capita basis).
Solar Would Power the Mountain West if The U.S. Kept Pace with Germany
The spread of solar has not resulted in covering natural areas or fertile land with solar panels. Rather, 80 percent of the solar installed in Germany was on rooftops and built to a local scale (100 kilowatts or smaller – think the roof of a church or a Home Depot store). Solar in the U.S. also can use existing space. The following map shows the amount of a state’s electricity that could come from rooftop solar alone, from our 2009 report Energy Self-Reliant States:
State Potential Rooftop PV:
While the local rooftop solar potential of these states varies from 19 to 51 percent, there’s much more land available for solar without covering parks or crops. Once again, data from Energy Self-Reliant States (p. 13):
On either side of 4 million miles of roads, the U.S. has approximately 60 million acres (90,000 square miles) of right of way. If 10 percent the right of way could be used, over 2 million MW of roadside solar PV could provide close to 100 percent of the electricity consumption in the country. In California, solar PV on a quarter of the 230,000 acres of right of way could supply 27% of state consumption.
Such local solar power also provides enormous economic benefits. For every megawatt of solar installed, as many as 9 jobs are created. But the economic multiplier is significantly higher for locally owned projects, made possible when solar is built at a local scale as the Germans have done.
With local ownership, making America a 100% solar nation could create nearly 10 million jobs, and add as much as $450 billion to the U.S. economy.
The Germans have found the profitable marriage between their energy and environmental policy. It’s time for America to discover the same opportunity.
Just a reminder that while Texas swelters and its electric grid sags, rooftop solar PV alone could meet 35 percent of the state’s electricity needs. Map from Energy Self-Reliant States:
State Potential Rooftop PV:
Not only is the potential high, but the cost is low. The levelized cost of solar is just 14 cents per kilowatt-hour in Texas, when including the federal 30 percent tax credit. Cost estimates from ILSR.
Texans should start using the sun to beat the heat.
Find out why and how ILSR has been helping communities maximize the value of their local energy resources for nearly 40 years: ILSR’s Remarkable Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program View more presentations from John Farrell Continue reading
Distributed solar has an edge in the speed with which it will respond to financial incentives, he says. The private sector will begin to install solar panels in response to a feed-in tariff much more quickly than developers of large solar projects can negotiate power-purchase agreements with utilities and win regulatory approval from the government.
Back in April 2011, ILSR Senior Researcher John Farrell gave this presentation on the potential for solar power in Minnesota to a group of solar businesses and advocates. Solar in Minnesota: Great Potential View more presentations from John Farrell. Continue reading