solar energy

CURRENTS: An Energy Newsletter for Local Governments | Summer 2013 Edition

CURRENTS is a publication by Pat Stoner, the Statewide Local Government Energy Efficiency Best Practices Coordinator.  Pat has been writing and distributing CURRENTS: An Energy Newsletter for Local Governments since 1998.  We thank Pat for allowing us to post his newsletter on our blog.  To subscribe to CURRENTS, email Patrick Stoner ( 

Please visit the Statewide Coordinator web site at:

Energy Efficiencies In Five Rural Communities In Five Days

Congressman Jim Costa, Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, Mendota Mayor Robert Silva, and officials from Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), Richard Heath and Associates (RHA), and the Center for Irrigation Technology’s Advanced Pumping Efficiency Program were on hand to kick off a week long campaign of energy efficiency upgrades to the western Fresno County rural communities of Mendota, Kerman, Firebaugh, San Joaquin, Coalinga and Huron last August. The campaign was dubbed ‘Five Cities, Five Days.” read more...

Sonoma County Community Choice Aggregation

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted to implement Sonoma Clean Power. This program will focus on providing a cleaner power mix for Sonoma County customers. The Board's decision means that this service will be made available to about 100,000 customers in the unincorporated areas of the county. read more...

How Benchmarking Makes Cities Smarter

By Caroline Keicher Program Manager, Building Energy Performance Policy, The Institute for Market Transformation

2013 looks like it will be a banner year for building energy benchmarking and disclosure policies. With Philadelphia’s policy adoption closing out 2012 on a high note, Minneapolis got us started strong in January of 2013—becoming the seventh U.S. city, and the first in the Midwest, to pass a policy requiring transparency of energy performance in large commercial buildings. read more...

ACEEE Report: Assisting Home Buyers With Increased Energy Use Information

What if people could have access to a piece of valuable information that they don’t currently receive about the house they are considering for purchase? What if this could happen with very little bureaucracy and limited program implementation costs? Sound appealing? read more...

Trading New Development For Water Savings In Napa

The City of Napa has a medium-sized water system of about 25,000 connections. Its Water Demand Mitigation (Water Offset) requirement for new development has historically been known as the ‘Toilet Retrofit Program,’ because the water savings were achieved by replacing older 3.5+ gallon-per-flush (gpf) toilets with 1.6 gpf ultra-low-flush toilets (ULFTs). Several years ago, that replacement toilet specification changed to EPA WaterSense-labeled 1.28 gpf high-efficiency toilets (HETs). read more...

Optimizing Municipal Facility Performance: Retrocommissioning Program Toolkit For Local Governments

By The California Sustainability Alliance

In its Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) established a strategic framework for helping local governments advance sustainability within their jurisdictions. The Plan calls for local governments to influence the community, leverage local authority and lead by example by improving resource efficiency, reducing carbon emissions and cutting energy bills in their own facilities. read more...

Solar Energy Resource Guide

The Northern California Solar Energy Association (NorCal Solar) released its 9th edition Solar Energy Resource Guide (SERG) last July. This highly-regarded publication is a primer on just about all things solar, written and reviewed by experts. read more...

Zero Net Energy For Policymakers & Local Governments

Are you pursuing zero net energy (ZNE) buildings, goals or policies in your jurisdiction?Do you need information, tools and other resources to help?
Connect with public sector leaders in Sacramento on July 16th for a Zero Net Energy (ZNE) Leadership meeting to share experiences and learn about tools and resources to achieve ZNE. read more...

Upcoming Events

The following list of upcoming events may be of interested to you. read more...

Guest Blogger: Can solar calm the coming storm?

Tom Cotter is a renewable energy evangelist, social entrepreneur, activist, trained presenter for the Climate Reality Project, and ordained minister. Professionally, Tom is Regional Sales Manager at Real Goods Solar. He is Chairman and President of the International Green Industry Hall of Fame and serves on the boards of both the Solar Living Institute and Restore Hetch Hetchy. You can learn more about Tom on his website, SolarTomCotter

This article was originally published on November 9 on the

A screen-grab of the Hurricane Sandy Wind Map infographic taken at 10:26 AM 30 Oct 2012. The surface wind data in this beautiful wind map from (Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg) comes from the National Digital Forecast Database. 

Going solar is part of solving the climate disruption we are experiencing. 
Though climate change failed to emerge as a topic during the 2012 presidential debates, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did raise it in the final days before the election and in the wake of Hurrican Sandy's devastation, citing President Barack Obama's leadership on the issue as his reason for endorsing the president for a second term. 
“Our climate is changing,” Bloomberg wrote for Bloomberg View. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be - given this week’s devastation - should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
If the issue is indeed now on the table, the next question is what can we do to slow or reverse the effects of climate change?
Clean energy is a key part of the equation. Clean energy creates electricity by tapping into natural cycles and systems, turning the ever-present energy around us into usable forms while producing little or no pollution, including avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.
Out of the variety of clean energy sources, solar power, geothermal, ocean currents, wind, hydroelectric and biomass, solar is an obvious strong option, especially in California, where we typically have lots of sun.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, solar energy from the sun is a vast and inexhaustible resource around the globe. Just 20 days of sunshine contains more energy than the world’s entire supply of coal, oil, and natural gas.
In Fresno County, California, which suffers, even in good times, from more enduring high unemployment than the rest of the state and nation, solar is an even brighter spot.
Data from the California Solar Initiative (CSI) shows that solar growth over the past several years has primarily come from lower and middle income zip codes. With an average median zip code income of $43,000, Fresno County saw a 122 percent increase in CSI applications from 2007 to 2011.
In looking at what is going on across the country with solar jobs, the solar industry in the U.S. increased its workforce by 6.8 percent from August 2010 to August 2011, according Solar Energy Industry of America. That is a growth of nearly ten times faster than the overall economy.
More good news for Californians is the passing of Proposition 39, which is estimated to create 20,000 to 30,000 jobs for disadvantaged youth, veterans and others in clean energy projects and building efficiency retrofits. In closing a tax loophole that gave out-of-state corporations an unfair advantage over those based in-state, this change will increase annual state revenues by roughly $1 billion, with half - capped at $550 million - going to a new state Clean Energy Job Creation Fund for the first five years and the remainder going into the state’s general fund, according to the Yes on Prop 39 website. It accomplishes this without raising taxes on Californians.
Those are the kind of positive economic force the Valley can use. Jobs, lower energy costs and efficient buildings that are cheaper to operate are not only a win for residents, but also for our environment.
Scientists tell us that by continually dumping 90 million tons of pollution into the atmosphere every single day, we are altering the environment in which all storms develop. As the oceans and atmosphere continue to warm, storms are becoming more energetic and powerful. We are beginning to see the effects on humans from this atmospheric experiment.
The impacts of climate change can be daunting, even frightening. But we are not helpless. It is wise and prudent to increase our use of available and affordable clean forms of energy. These choices will reduce global warming pollution and help turn things around both now and for the future.
As this planet is the only home we have for now, we have an obligation to ourselves and to future generations to be responsible stewards.
If you like this article, please Share it, Tweet it, Subscribe (above) or LikeSolarTomCotter on Facebook.
The views expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author(s) and not necessarily representative of or an endorsement by the Organization

Seducing a fossil-fuel Frankenstein

Peter Boyle and Madeline Kahn
At the point Gene Wilder realizes something is wrong with his creation in "Young Frankenstein," he asks a big-eyed Marty Feldman whose brain he actually ended up implanting into Peter Boyle's head.

"Promise you won't be angry?" says Igor.

"I won't be angry," says the doctor.

But this is classic Wilder. His hair is wild, love-interest Terri Garr is in the background semi-breathless. He will go nuts. After all, Igor's answer is "Abby Something, Abby Normal."

The result is classic. "Are you saying I put an abnormal brain into a 7 1/2-foot-long, 54-inch wide gorilla?" Wilder asks, grasping the earnest Igor by the neck and hefting him off the ground like a rag sidekick.

The U.S. energy industry has installed a series of protocols into its collective head that spew nothing but carbon. So far, solar has a long way to go, even though incremental advances appear to be made on a monthly basis.

Solar developments shine

A couple that come to mind involve a breakthrough by IBM researchers to squeeze more solar power out of cheaper materials and a move by the California Public Utilities Commission that could spur innovation in energy storage for alternative energy projects. Ulicia Wang of says IBM's solar cells made of easy-to-access copper, zinc, tin and sulfur onvert 11.1 percent of sunlight into electricity for a 10 percent gain. The material is important because it uses no rare earth elements, like indium and gallium, which can be difficult to source.

The CPUC in an August 2012 report, Resolution E-4522, gives kudos to three of five proposed solar projects in California that use molten salt to store energy and provide power after the sun goes down. Southern California Edison has requested approval of power purchase agreements for the projects, all developed by Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy Inc. Each has a 200 megawatt capacity and use mirrors to convert sunlight to heat.

However, the energy storage option earn high marks on the projects, strangely dubbed Siberian 1, Siberian 2 and Sonoran West. "These three projects compare favorably on a price and value basis," the report says.

That's substantial progress.

Carbon earthforms

But decades of domination by the oil industry have been a lot like a Peter Boyle character on the loose. Alternative energy developments are like throwing a bag of marbles at his feet in hopes he stumbles. Not a chance, really.

The fossil fuel industry is entombed in U.S. corporate culture. Just check out the new cars on the road. Maybe they're not as big as before the economic collapse, but they still burn gasoline. A major shift to solar-extracted hydrogen or full-on electric is about as likely as veganism being a part of an election-year GOP platform.

I'm at a loss for deducing a solution. I work at a job that chips away at the problem project by project. It makes me feel like I'm doing a part, just not very significant.

Seduce fossil Frankenstein

Maybe we need Madeline Kahn or somebody like her. She could seduce the monster (metaphorically embodied by Boyle in his greatest role after "Joe"). Where to find this person? Maybe an idea would get the public up in arms (pitchforks, torches, etc.).

Super cheap energy would work. Not natural gas, although granted it's a good bridge fuel.

Just a distraction really. The Frankenstein fossil fuel monster running amok could use a diversion. Madeline is pretty convincing in the Mel Brooks classic. Ideas?

Porterville schools install solar

Solar power continues to attract believers.

The latest comes from the Porterville Unified School District, which is installing systems totaling 3.6 megawatts at five schools. The solar panels are expected to deliver up to $44 million in gross savings over the next 30 years and "are creating needed jobs during construction," say officials with San Jose-based SunPower, which is providing its California-manufactured panels to the projects.

At Monache High School, workers are installing SunPower panels on elevated trackers to maximize energy generation by following the sun.

"It's going to be a good thing in the long run," student Kyle Hicks tells ABC30 reporter Jessica Peres. Peres' story says the system at Porterville High will also shade cars in the parking lot as well as cut the school's $2.2 million utility bill in half.

Peres lists the project's total cost at $23 million.

A look on the California Public Utilities Commission website shows a half dozen projects on its July 2012 project status update. Three totalling 45 megawatts are in Kings County, 40 megawatts in Sonoma and Lake counties, 5 megawatts in Mendota and 21 megawatts in Blythe.

Solar Impulse electric plane flies into Madrid

Photo courtesy Altran Group.
The plane Solar Impulse landed in Madrid, Spain on July 7 on its return trip from Morocco.

The 17-hour flight had some turbulence and challenges for pilot Bertrand Piccard, but nothing he couldn't handle.

"After flying towards Tangier and over the Strait of Gibraltar, the solar aircraft steered in the direction of Seville," officials said in a statement. "Because of strong crosswinds over the Iberian Peninsula, the pilot found a holding area west of Seville where he waited for the right moment to continue his journey towards Toledo."

The footage from news service EFEverde shows the Solar Impulse cruise silently in for a landing. Its lights illuminate the broad but lightweight frame something akin to a UFO.

"I hope that Europe will learn from Morocco’s example," Piccard says right after the flight. He's referring to the country's investment into solar infrastructure. "It’s precisely during times of global crisis that there needs to be an investment in renewable energies and energy savings, providing us with what’s necessary to sustain employment, purchasing power and a positive trade balance.

"Thank you Morocco for giving us the good example by building the world’s largest solar power plant."

The slow-moving plane has the wingspan of an Airbus A340 and 12,000 solar cells integrated into the wings to supply four electric motors. The solar cells also charge the 400kg lithium polymer batteries so it can fly at night.

Altran Group, an engineering company involved with the project, says the Solar Impulse team faces far greater challenges when it returns to home base.  "The next major stages in the development of Solar Impulse are to cross the Atlantic then to fly around the world on-board a 2nd prototype, already under construction," Altran officials say.

Solar energy advances at rocket speed

Politicians are fond of cliches, especially this one: "I didn't get that memo."

Memos are just one thing that politicians don't get, but it could be true in the case of solar energy. Technology has advanced so fast and so far that policy makers and even utilities have been left behind. Many experts are working off outdated information and don't realize renewable energy is now cost competitive in many circumstances, according to this report from Bloomberg New Energy.

"...awareness of the current economics of solar power lags among many commentators, policy makers, energy users and even utilities," the report stated.

Authors attributed the lag to rapidly dropping prices of solar panels, ambiguous metrics used in the solar industry and persistent dissemination of outdated data - "occasionally by those with an interest in clouding the discussion," they say.

The authors also take issue with traditional metrics and messaging, such as "grid parity," which is used to describe the point where the cost of renewable energy matches other more traditional power sources. But the method is so yesterday, according to the authors, because, in part, it often compares a "retail technology to a wholesale price."

Bloomberg isn't the only group touting the attractiveness of renewable energy. Goldman Sachs put its money where its mouth is to the tune of $40 billion. Such an investment in clean technology isn't greenwashing, says Christopher Swann in Slate. As he says, "The Wall Street never far from the money."

Goldman Sachs is trying to capitalize on an emerging industry - one with many twists and turns. The Bloomberg report entitled, "Re-considering the Economics of Photovoltaic Power," suggested that obtaining an accurate accounting of  industry shifts is difficult because prices change so fast, and because the supply chain and manufacturing process is complex.

From the study: "Adding to these complexities is the wide range of policy support mechanisms that have been utilised to facilitate PV deployment in different jurisdictions. In a number of countries these policies have become increasingly politically controversial within wider debates on public subsidies and climate change action. As such, the quality of reporting and information on the PV industry economics can vary widely. "

A trip down memory lane

The authors give a brief history lesson on solar energy, and acknowledge that costs have generally exceeded other forms of power generation. But that was then; this is now:

 "...With  rapid cost reductions, a changing electricity industry context with regard to energy security and climate change concerns, increasing costs for some generation alternatives and a growing appreciation of the appropriate comparative metrics, PV‟s competitiveness is changing rapidly. As an example, large drops in solar module prices have helped spur record levels of deployment, which increased 54 percent over the previous year to 28.7 GW in 2011. This is ten times the new build level of 2007. "

Again, from the report: "Grid parity is now largely an outdated concept stemming from an industry that has traditionally been used to being an "underdog" of small scale, and constantly fighting for a "level playing field".

Clean energy is maturing, and in some ways repeating history. Technological changes aren't smooth. Just look at what is happening to the newspaper industry . The Bloomberg authors suggest the rapid changes in solar energy carry implications for policy makers designing new fiscal and supporting programs.

"The challenge is to elegantly transition PV from a highly promising and previously expensive option, to a highly competitive player in electricity industries around the world," they say.

Financing mechanisms evolving

Bloomberg New Energy also found, in another study, that the evolution of the industry is leading to new financing vehicles. It is moving toward a broader array of support. Read more here.

Bloomberg and its consultant on the study, Reznick Group, contend the broader support will help the industry keep growing. The new financing sources will replace traditional players, such as the federal government, who cut back. New players include pension funds, insurance companies, big corporate firms such as Google, and vehicles such as partnerships and programs akin to real estate investment trusts.

New financing methods. Falling costs. Technology improving.

Sounds like an industry on the move.

Clean energy marches toward maturity using traditional path

It's tempting to believe the political rhetoric over renewable energy and assume the industry is dying without ever grabbing a foothold. In reality, it is following a well-worn path traveled by emerging technologies for dozens of years.

 A new report from the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at University of Tennessee compares the stutter-step progress of clean energy with that of the automobile and other industries. The report cites the Chief Strategist of Shell Oil as saying, "It takes about 30 years for any new energy source to attain 1% market share."

From the report: "Only in retrospect is technology change smooth. Within its own historical context, it is rough and uncertain with many false starts and byways. The social history of technology change is replete with stories of early technology adoption in unexpected niches. Often the early innovators are not the ones who profit from the process."

Consider the early days of automobiles and personal computers. the report notes that horseless carriages powered by electricity electricity, steam, or internal combustion engines came on the scene in the late 1800s, but 40 years later only 7.7% of American families had an automobile. Then, there was a spurt: "Only a decade later, in 1929, 60% of American families had autos," the report states.

Personal computers struggled through the same torturous path. The Altair kit for hobbyists appeared in 1967. Early commercial computers debuted a decade later with Apple II, the Pet 201 and Radio Shack's TRS-80.

I used a TRS-80, or Trash 80, in the early 1980s. I lived near Clear Lake in Northern California, and was a correspondent for the daily newspaper in Santa Rosa. I would write a story on the TRS-80 and then look for a phone booth. I attached the acoustic couplers to the phone, typed in some numbers, and heard the distinctive whine of the transmitted story.

Today, I don't think I can find TRS-80, acoustic couplers or even a phone booth.

Solar power has expanded at a 77% annual growth rate over the last five years, thanks in large part to generous incentives, cheaper PV and state renewable standards. Despite that, solar energy provided less than 0.1% of U.S. electrical demand in 2010, according to this report entitled "Sunshot Vision Study" by the U.S. Department of Energy.

However, the expansion could be substantial, the Sunshot report states, if prices drop, transmission capacity increases and other advances are made. Assuming prices of  $1/watt  (W) for utility-scale PV systems, $1.25/W for commercial rooftop  and $1.50/W for residential rooftop, the penetration of solar power could reach 14% in the U.S. by 2030 and 27% by 2050.

An incentive to grow

The Baker study said incentives are most effective in young emerging industries such as clean energy, while subsidies in mature industries have the effect of suppressing the new technologies. "If the goal of incentives is to bring a resource to the point of full market penetration, one would expect larger incentives for fuels that have not reached maturity," the study said.

Incentives in mature industries (hello, oil) raise the overall cost of government incentives needed to expand new resources. From the Baker report:  "From an economic development perspective, a portfolio of incentives weighted toward mature industries will tend to insulate and maintain those profitable industries and suppress new industries."

Incentives have certainly worked in clean energy. This New York Times editorial notes the robust return of clean energy, and suggests this is the wrong time to end subsidies. The goal, it says, should be to use incentives to "get (clean energy industries) to a point where they can stand on their own."

Just getting started

Clean energy is gaining a foothold in many places. College campuses, the U.S. military, professional sports and farmers are following in the footsteps of Big Business, which is increasingly realizing that sustainability also generates a green bottom line. See examples here.

Incentives helped forge a foothold, and, hopefully, it won't be long until clean energy, which includes energy efficiency, can stand on its own.

PlanetSolar, solar catamaran, finishes round-the-world trip

Raphael Domjan, left, and M. Immo Stroher
Raphael Domjan is a modern-day Phileas Fogg.

Rather than circumnavigate the globe in 80 days like the unstoppable Jules Verne character, Domjan opted for a more leisurely pace -- about 6 knots at last look. But Domjan's trip is no less historic.

Domjan, a Swiss national trained as an electronics engineer and Jules Verne fan, joined with German businessman M. Immo Ströher to accomplish the feat in a solar-powered boat.

Their photovoltaic sheathed catamaran, PlanetSolar, plans to conclude its voyage after 584 days upon the high seas, cruising into the high-society port of Monaco on May 4, 2012. Aboard the PlanetSolar, most activity likely focused on journey's end, wrapping up the adventure with shore-based activities before letting the public get a look at the historic vessel.

Captain's log
In his daily logbook, Domjan writes: "Right after waking up, I go to the cockpit to take a look at the weather conditions. The weather is beautiful, clear blue sky, and snowy summits…it is perfect.

"Really, Nature has always helped us and provided us with its energy when we needed it… the planet and its power are really with us.

"(Captain) Patrick Marchesseau joined us this morning. The crew comprises now 5 members, our batteries are fully charged, and the weather forecast is looking good. We will leave Corsica tomorrow morning and begin our last navigation. Although we are all very happy about crossing the finish line tomorrow, we all share a feeling of nostalgia.

"See you tomorrow for our last solar navigation."

The PlanetSolar crew
Marchesseau, according to his PlanetSolar bio, is French and has been sailing on different cruise vessels since 1991. He was captain of the French cruise ship Le Ponant when it was kidnapped by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden in spring 2008.

The rest of the crew includes Captain/Master Erwann Le Rouzic who also started his career at sea in 1991 and has been sailing on different cruise vessels since 2001. His bio reads: "Parallel to his professional career, he pursued his passion for the sea on sailboats." The frenchman's resume includes French and international sailing races, including a 60-day trans-Atlantic crossing as skipper in 2002 and ocean voyage from Canary Islands to France.

Bosun (Boatswain) Jens Langwasser is German and, according to his bio, part of a long line of seafarers and sailors, constantly seeking success in yacht races. Jens trained at a shipyard in the German Baltic Sea port of Lübeck to become a boat builder. He headed up the construction team on PlanetSolar at the Knierim Yachtbau boatyard in Kiel, Germany, putting in 68,000 hours into the effort. He calls PlanetSolar "probably one of the most challenging and unusual projects we have ever had at the yard. After 16 months of intense work and thinking, the project turned into some kind of ‘special boat,’ a special creation."

Christian Ochsenbein, who is Swiss and an electrical engineer, served as chief of energy management, no small task when every kilowatt counts. According to his bio, he grew up in the Swiss city of Thun overlooking the Eiger Mountain. His father worked as a chief technician in the shipyard on Lake Thun. He's a champion swimmer, earning bronze twice in the breaststroke at the Swiss Championships.

The vision and future
Domjan and Stroher say they want their accomplishment "to demonstrate that a motor vessel can function from today without using any fossil fuel." They believe using solar power to travel undoubtedly has a commercial future.

"Our planet deserves a better, brighter and less polluted future," Domjan says on his site. "Future technologies must be keenly investigated and solutions must be found.

"The project will help to motivate engineers and scientists to develop innovative technologies, inspire people around the world and show that the impossible can become possible."

A new day dawns for solar energy

Declining subsidies and oversupply are seen by many as death stars to solar energy, but the industry in the U.S. is just pausing, and expansion is projected for the next two decades, according to a new study. Entitled, "Solar Power: Darkest before dawn," the report by McKinsey and Co. suggests a bright future ahead for nature's most abundant natural power source.

From the McKinsey web site: "McKinsey research indicates that the industry is suffering from growing pains rather than undergoing death throes. Solar is entering a period of maturation that, in just a few years, will probably lead to more stable and expansive growth for companies that can manage costs and innovate to tap rising demand from multiple customer segments."

Here's a link to the write-up, and also to an earlier blog that discusses the boom-and-bust cycle of clean energy and notes the industry is at a crossroad.

The report finds that falling prices will spur demand, even without subsidies, for five key markets: "off-grid, residential and commercial in areas with good and moderate sun conditions, isolated grids, peak capacity in growth markets, and new large-scale power plants."

Critics point to the implosion of Solyndra, companies downsizing, fights between solar developers and environmentalists, and other issues as an industry in disarray. But is it? Various reports say solar power will reach grid parity with traditional sources of power within a few years. GE says here that dropping solar prices combined with rising fuel prices will make solar energy cheaper than fossil fuels within five years.

Bloomberg here projects solar to be investment worthy in the U.S. by 2020.  Banks could become moret than bit players, according to this post.

This post in Triple Pundit by sustainability consultant Leon Kaye suggests the industry "shakeout" will continue for at least a year, and shouldn't be viewed as a "meltdown," but rather as laying the foundation for expansion.

Think about it. Increasingly, volatile energy prices are playing havoc on budgets, and businesses are looking for some balance. Delta Air Lines is so desperate it is spending $150 million for its own oil refinery. The Washington Post has more here.

Closer to home, we in Fresno, CA., are seeing solar panels installed at wineries,schools, farms and on rooftops. Fresno is ranked 4th in the state in rooftop solar capacity, and dozens of solar arrays are proposed throughout the San Joaquin Valley, according to local planning officials.

Solar really makes sense here. The Valley is the nation's salad bowl, and the $25 billion agriculture industry consumes lots of power. So, it makes sense farmers want to reduce their bills and carbon footprints. Temperatures are high, power bills skyrocket during the I'm-going-to-spontaneously-combust-walking-to-my-car summers, the sun shines much of the year and the air quality is among the worst in the nation.

 There are other uses for solar too. Did you know that oil and solar can mix?. Check out this about a California-based start-up, and this about Chevron and Bright Source Energy teaming up in an oil field in Fresno County. And I wonder if a nifty new mapping tool like this will spark a solar rooftop revolution.

"Revolution." That may not be too strong a word.

Image by Gabriella Fabbri

California's disadvantaged could get powered up with solar

Proposed legislation would require the installation of small-scale rooftop solar systems in areas that really need it - low-income and underserved neighborhoods in California.

Assembly bill 1990 by Paul Fong, D-Mountain View, would prompt the installation of 375 megawatts of generating capacity from small-scale renewable generation facilities. The goal is to "benefit the communities where electrical utility customers live, especially in the most impacted and disadvantaged communities with high unemployment that bear a disproportionate burden from air pollution, disease, and other impacts from the generation of electricity from the burning of fossil fuels," the legislation says.

375 megawatts of clean energy equates to removing about 50 passenger vehicles from the road annually. California Watch has more here.

Hopeful Signs On The Green Jobs Front!

Two recent news items - one an announcement by a manufacturing plant in Fresno and the other a story in the San Luis Obispo newspaper - underline the impact of the emerging solar energy industry in Central California and the western United States. They also help fulfill the promise of green jobs.

First was this: PPG Industries said it will make components for the solar power industry at its Fresno plant. The company said it is the only maker of Solarphire PV glass on the West Coast, which will enhance its ability to serve an industry that is expected to surge in the Southwest and Asia - two regions that have strong potential for new solar projects.

Then there was this: About 400 workers are employed at two solar-power construction sites just west of the San Joaquin Valley. The construction is expected to take about three years.

Read more here and here.

While PPG officials say the current expansion of capacity won't add any jobs to the Fresno plant, who is to say that won't change if solar gains in popularity? PPG is smart to carve out a niche.

Meanwhile, the solar construction jobs in the Carrizo Plain of San Luis Obispo County could be the first of many more in the area. Dozens of other proposals - some of them pretty substantial (check this out) have been approved or are awaiting approval - in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties, in addition to those under way in San Luis Obispo County.

Those proposals combined with projects earmarked for the Southern California desert (think industrial revolution!) could provide construction jobs for the next several years. They also help California meet or exceed its ambitious 33 percent renewables mandate.

Of course, it is unlikely that all of the proposed projects will be approved. Financing issues, conflicts with farming groups and habitat/environmental concerns will probably knock some out, but I wonder if green energy could become a new industry in the Valley and beyond.

Fresno unleashes its solar power!

More property owners in Fresno are using the sun to power their homes, according to a new study.

The number of rooftop solar installations has doubled in the past two years, ranking Fresno fourth in the state in the amount of solar-generated electricity and fifth in the number of installations on residential, commercial and government buildings, an advocacy group, Environment California Research & Policy Center, reported Wednesday.

Fresno's 2,146 rooftop solar arrays produce 22 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply about 22,000 houses. Each megawatt prevents the emission of an estimated 700 pounds of smog-forming pollution annually.

"Competing with the state's biggest cities, Fresno has emerged as a real solar-power leader," said Stephanie Droste-Packham of Environment California. "The Central Valley is growing its solar-power market one roof at a time."

Rooftop solar is an ideal energy source in the San Joaquin Valley, especially considering how sunny and hot it is here, said Courtney Kalashian, associate director of the Fresno-based nonprofit San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization.

"Incomes are low and power bills are high," she said. "Why not utilize the region's most plentiful resource to bring down those power costs and put more money in people's wallets. We could easily become a solar valley!"

Environment California and city officials announced the study results at Ivan Lopez's home in the Little Long Cheng housing community in southeast Fresno, where 25 of 41 houses, including Lopez's, are solar powered. It is estimated that Lopez and the other homeowners there will save a combined $390,000 in energy costs over 30 years.

Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit that installs solar panels in low-income regions, installed the solar systems at Little Long Cheng. KMJ has more here.

San Diego, Los Angeles and San Jose rank higher than Fresno in solar capacity. San Francisco, Bakersfield, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Oakland and Chico round out the top 10. Clovis is ranked 11th.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin reaffirmed her commitment to solar power in Fresno on Wednesday, and capacity could continue to expand. Other regions also are gaining solar power. Capacity in Sacramento, for example, tripled over two years to 16 megawatts. Read more here in The Sacramento Bee.

Photo of Grid Alternatives "Solarthon" in Fresno

Unlocking The Solar Power Of Military Bases

Military bases are huge. And they have lots of open space. So much open space, in fact, that bases in Southern California could become solar power generators - contributing up to $100 million per year in revenue to the federal government, according to a new study commissioned at the request of Congress.

The Department of Defense has a huge power bill, some $4 billion per year, according to this story in CleanTechnica that sums up the findings of a year-long study for the military by Virginia-based analytical firm ICF International. Even though 96% of the open space would be considered off limits, the remaining 4 percent is enough to generate 7,000 megawatts, which, CleanTechnica states, is 30 times more power than the bases consume.

The government could receive $100 million in rent payments, reduced cost power, in-kind contributions or some combination thereof, the study states. The military solar could generate enough power to supply 1.75 million homes, according to industry estimates.

However, it's unlikely that all of that 4 percent would be claimed. Much of the land is remote and access to the transmission grid poses significant challenges. That said, about 25,000 acres at military bases in Southern California are "suitable" for development, and about 100,000 acres are "likely" or "questionably" suited for solar development. The researchers assumed 100 percent of the 25,000 "suitable" acres and 25 percent of the "likely" and "questionable" land could be turned over to private solar developers.

Most of the installations already contain one to two megawatts of solar power - and large chunks of property that can't be used for solar. Modern weapons systems and other issues - flash flood hazards, steep slopes and conflicts with native habitat - prevent development of the overwhelming majority of the land.

But covering just 6 percent of the potentially available land would generate enough power to meet the military's 2005 renewable-energy goals, the report states.

Five types of solar projects were considered: rooftops, shaded parking lots; shading structures over unpaved parking lots; and ground arrays.

As CleanTechnica notes, "military bases occupy more than 30 million acres of land, much of it in areas with lots of sun, and they need a secure supply of electricity as a matter of security..."

So, why not use solar? The clean energy would help California reach or exceed its ambitious 33 percent renewables mandate and, when combined with other innovative programs (such as using rights-of way under transmission lines; More on that here,), would put otherwise waste land to productive use.

To unlock that potential, the authors put forth the following recommendations for the Department of Defense:

Work with stakeholders to accelerate construction of transmission lines; develop microgrid technology on the military bases (like this project) and further refine its energy-security goals; provide incentives for military installations that invest in energy technology; and work with the federal Bureau of Land Management (which also leases land to solar companies) to ensure the government is getting fair rents.

Here is a New York Times story on the report.

Photo: Solar array at Fort Hunter by

Jail Facilities Lock Up Solar Power

My friend half jokingly refers to the inland portion of Central California as "Valley of the Cons" because prisons employ so many people here. The state Department of Corrections is listed as major employers in Madera, Fresno, Kings and Kern counties, according to the state Employment Development Department.

Coalinga, Corcoran and Chowchilla are home to some pretty large correctional facilities. Then there are the smaller county jails. Both kinds of lockups face the same dilemma: shrinking budgets. Maybe Solar Valley can meet Valley of the Cons. Sixty miles to my north is Merced County, where officials thought up a way to slash power bills, contribute to the state's ambitious 33 percent renewables mandate and make a few bucks. They signed a deal with Siemens to put solar panels at a county jail. More on that here.

The idea of using solar energy at prisons isn't new. In 2001, wrote about this project in Alameda County, and state officials are planning solar panels at prisons in Delano and Tehachapi, both in Kern County (also Blythe and Lancaster, according to this story ).

The solar array in Merced County will cover 4.5 acres, offset 75 percent of the power usage at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility and Iris Garrett Juvenile Justice Correctional Complex, will lead to an estimated $14 million in energy savings over 25 years and could create $9 million of positive cash flow over the same 25 years. It also will eliminate about 1,000 tons of CO2 emissions when combined with lighting upgrades implemented by Siemens.

The county will receive solar incentives totalling $1.5 million over five years, and is eligible for PG&E's capital improvement rebate.

Powering jails with solar energy is only one way that local governments can slash utility costs. Increasingly, cities and counties are using solar energy to save money at their biggest energy hogs: water treatment plants.

SunPower Corp. has finished deals at water operations in Los Angeles, Riverside and Sacramento counties, according to this article in pv Magazine, but they are hardly isolated cases. Similar connections are in place in Parlier, Tulare and Madera in the San Joaquin Valley. Learn more here.

The San Joaquin Valley, where I sit, is blessed with lots of sun. But that sun also creates triple-digit temperatures in the summer, which leads to high power bills and high energy use. Utilizing the rich solar resource to attack the high power bills makes sense here. That's why officials at UC Merced, which has a top-notch solar research program, unofficially dubbed this region "Solar Valley."

That certainly sounds better than "Valley of the Cons."

Photo: Aerial view of Tulare wastewater treatment plant

Solar joins the right-price energy club

Solar parity is here.

Honest. That's what a new study from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario says.

"Given the state of the art in the technology and favourable financing terms it is clear that PV has already obtained grid parity in specific locations," say K. Brawker, M.J.M. Pathak and J.M. Pearce in the report, "A Review of Solar Photovoltaic Levelized Cost of Electricity."

That and technological innovation, which is driving up solar system efficiencies, could open new markets and spur significant development of projects focused on harvesting the sun's energy. In California's San Joaquin Valley, we're already seeing the results with about 40 projects in the works in Fresno County and at least as many in nearby counties.

Ferocious cost reductions

Sami Grover, from, put it this way: "With the solar industry delivering ferocious cost reductions, falling as much as 11 percent in just six months, it's little wonder that some predict that solar will be cheaper than coal in the very near future."

A editor says the findings by Queen's University don't even take into account health, energy security and environmental costs of fossil fuels "and it STILL finds that solar has reached grid parity in many places."

The recent Durban Climate Summit clarified the dangers of allowing pollution to continue without restraint. The cost and potential damage of unparalleled production of greenhouse gases is impossible to determine. But one thing's for certain, it will be huge.

The rapid innovation of solar technology offers a way to cut into reliance on fossil fuels. Whether it will make a difference is anybody's guess.

Solar interest high

A solar research symposium at the University of California, Merced, Dec. 9, 2011, draws students and researchers from UC Merced's program, which is fast becoming a leader in solar research, and University of California campuses of Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara and San Diego as well as other universities. All report that their programs are working hard to improve the efficiency of solar cells.

At the symposium, Sarah Kurtz, interim director of the National Center for Photovoltaics and principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, tells my co-worker Sandy Nax that costs are dropping "spectacularly."

Nax also reports in a recent post that the industry is expanding at a robust rate with photovoltaic shipments doubling every two years.

Gaining efficiency

While many photovoltaic cells on the market range between 12 and 20 percent efficient, moves are being made to increase that number significantly. However, those technologies also cost more. "The challenge is to make high efficiency with low cost and high reliability," Kurtz says.

Some in our sun-drenched valley are concerned about seeing solar panels everywhere, especially on prime farmland. Nax tells me that efficiencies reduce solar's footprint and likely will improve its image, especially amongst concerned farmers.

That and estimated $1 per watt equipment costs will go a long way toward influencing standards that include photovoltaic panels as part of nearly every newly constructed building or major retrofit and remodel. Toss in escalating electricity rates, and solar may become as common as flat-screen television sets in American households.

But rather than offering entertainment, this electronic device will create a new era of distributed energy.

Nothing's easy

There will be challenges. For instance, what happens when the sun falls below the horizon? Cheap solar provides options that weren't otherwise available. Perhaps production of hydrogen will become more widespread that either can be used in fuel cells or in other applications.

Political leaders also will have to knuckle under and institute more laws like California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which seeks to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, and the requirement that utilities get a third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Otherwise, the incentive by the private sector to start figuring out cleaner alternatives might not great enough to foster widespread change.

It can be done. Even at Durban, which drew representatives from 190 countries, leaders in the final hours of the Climate Summit put together what some media sources call a road map to a legally binding climate treaty by 2020.

We'll see.

Solar and Water: A Powerful Combination

Many people equate solar power with rooftops, and that's true. More property owners - commercial and residential - are installing solar panels on their roofs to cut power bills and carbon footprint. Check out what Toys 'R' Us is doing in New Jersey, and what officials in Los Angeles want to do.

But solar energy is popping up all over the place. In backpacks. With the military in Afghanistan. On parking structures and as window coverings. And, increasingly, on or around water.

Solar is appearing at wastewater treatment plants, vineyard irrigation ponds and in settling ponds at gravel mines. There is even the possibility of solar panels on oceans. This New York Times piece, which I read in the San Jose Mercury-News, features wineries in Northern California that moored solar panels in ponds to help produce power.

Vineyard real estate is pricey, and this is a way to conserve precious land. Larry Maguire, chief executive of Far Niente Winery, put it this way in the story: "Vineyard land in this part of the Napa Valley runs somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 per acre. . . We wanted to go solar, but we didn't want to pull out any vines."

Solar-energy systems also are gaining a stronger following here in the San Joaquin Valley, where power bills run high in the summer, and agriculture-related companies use lots of power and water.

The cities of Tulare and Madera use solar at their wastewater plants, which helps reduce energy costs. Learn more about those projects here and here. This Sign on San Diego story has more on how solar works at such plants.

The San Joaquin Valley has some of the most resourceful and efficient farmers in the World. Look for more water-related solar projects; it is a powerful combination.

Photo of solar array at Far Niente Winery by

Clean Energy: At The Precipice

Clean power (which to us consists of renewables and energy efficiency) is an industry on the cusp. Announcements of advancements and new gee whiz technology come seemingly each week, and keeping current is almost a full-time gig.

The use of fuel cells and solar energy is surging as technology improves. This Pike Research report notes that fuel cells have jumped from the research and development stage to commercialization. Shipments of fuel cells - most of them stationary systems - increased an annual average of 27% between 2008 and 2010.

Japanese homeowners have embraced them - about 5,000 houses there are powered by fuel cells - and they are becoming increasingly common in hospitals and hotels. As an aside, it should be noted that fuel cells are gaining a higher profile here in the San Joaquin Valley, where Odwalla and the city of Tulare, among others, are using them.

Check out this Webinar from the Department of Energy for more on how local businesses are using fuel cells.

Solar also has advanced, as greentechsolar notes here, but 2011 and 2012 are likely to be more challenging as austerity becomes a key watchword. Oversupply is possible, greentechsolar states in the article, as funds pull back.

Whether renewables gain a stronger foothold in the next few years remains to be seen - fits and starts are to be expected in the early stages of an emerging industry - but we are encouraged by the involvement of Big Business and the military.

The other component - efficiency and conservation - clearly has gone beyond the fringe stage. Stories of minimal economic investment reaping maximum energy and cost savings are everywhere. Companies, cities and schools are discovering that weatherization, upgraded air conditioners, more efficient lighting and smarter use of electricity add to the bottom line.

Even a Journalism major like me understands that investment in energy efficiency makes sense. There are only two ways to create cash flow: get more money or spend less - conservation falls into the latter category. Businesses, landlords and homeowners who cut their power bills have more money to spend, invest or otherwise stimulate the economy.

That's why federal Department of Energy officials call energy efficiency the "low-hanging fruit" of clean energy. And low-hanging fruit is something that residents of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive farming regions in the world, know something about.

Photo of Odwalla fuel cells