Small-scale solar's big potential goes untapped

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Small-scale solar’s big potential goes untapped

By JULIE CART

of the Los Angeles Times

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 California’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 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 federal government has 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.”

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 start-up costs also have brought solar power within reach for many homeowners and small businesses.

However, experts estimate that 75 percent of California’s 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.

Governor. Jerry Brown’s California Solar Initiative has set a target of 12,000 megawatts of energy derived from rooftop panels.

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