By Doug Korthof
OC Voice Columnist
Seldom has a solar proposal drawn such uniform enmity as Proposition 7 that appears on the November
election ballot. Big utilities, both major political parties, labor unions, solar installers, environmental, business and taxpayer groups all deplore it.
Those responsible for the electric grid must plan for the periods of peak power, which are weekday afternoons, especially in summer. Even one minute of shortage is a brownout, although during off-peak hours demand falls and there’s a surplus of electric. Providing economical power within the daily rise and fall of the electricity usage curve is their problem.
There are two types of electrical power generators: those that run best at constant output (nuclear, natural gas, coal) but require a long time to stop and start, and those that can be easily started when demand rises (hydro). Peak power is so valuable that water is pumped up to reservoirs such as Lake Castaic every night; the next day, the pumps turn into generators to meet daytime peak.
Solar power performs best during the times the grid needs power the most. Thus, solar is a natural “peaker” unit, which “comes on” only when needed, and turns itself off when big generators are brought down, an expensive and dirty process. Solar homes live under shade (there’s a 6-inch air gap under the panels) which cools the roof at the same time the panels make electricity to run air conditioners, which have less work to do.
Electricity from solar generators thus has an intrinsically higher value than other kinds of electricity. Furthermore, solar rooftop “plants” need no fuel, no maintenance workers, and lower the burden on pole-mounted transformers and long-distance transmission lines.
So what’s not to like about solar? Why isn’t every rooftop solar?
An easy calculation shows that if all the roofs of America were solarized, it would make more power than needed, even if all of our cars were plug-in electric cars.
Why aren’t insightful, prudent politicians and utilities reaching out to the public, encouraging them to
solarize their roofs?
The first thing to understand is that it’s all about power, but not the kind that heats homes.
The big utilities were granted a monopoly to control the electric supply
, and they want to maintain it. Opposition to rooftop solar rooftop power by the utilities is trenchant and determined. When people put solar panels on their rooftop, it’s really “power to the people” because they drop off the billing system.
It isn’t only utilities that suffer. Those companies that supply fuel to the power plants, such as coal, natural gas and uranium vendors, and the unions that are needed to run the plants, all are afraid of a loss of control, power, jobs and/or business.
Prop 7 forces utilities to buy more renewable power and creates a mechanism for solar concentrator plants in the desert run by the utilities. It is silent about distributed rooftop power; so it doesn’t do much, but it’s still too much for the power brokers.
Certainly the utilities could have reached out to local homeowners, paying for solar PV systems on otherwise unused roofs. Instead, SCE is fighting against cities like Oxnard, trying to put in dirty “peaker” plants that are only needed in the daytime. SCE never considered using the same amount of money ($45 million) to find 4,500 solar homes in Oxnard willing to solarize their rooftops.
Utilities have fought the implementation of solar power instead of promoting it even though it solves their peak usage problem. They prefer fiery out-of-state coal plants.
Environmental groups stood by while Schwarzenegger put substantial obstacles in the path of anyone daring to put solar on their own private property. Under the guise of stopping citizens from ripping off the solar tax rebate, he required a complex system of “predicted performance” that makes the cost uncertain and requires dozens of pages of new red tape.
If solar power were promoted, we’d have clean electric power. But the utilities would have less political power, unions less work, pols fewer bribes, and the enviros would not have an issue on which to raise money.
So in a sense, the united opposition to this measure shows what a farce our “energy policy” has been.
The measure is flawed, of course. Instead of installing solar in the desert, it should order utilities to help citizens put it on their own rooftops. But it does force languid, bribed officeholders to do something, instead of nothing.
And nothing is what will happen if Prop 7 fails.