The Clean Energy Potential in Our Backyard
By Nancy Skinner and Ethan Elkind, San Francisco Chronicle
The promise of energy production today has switched from fossil fuel-based power plants to renewable technologies, such as solar panels and wind turbines. Plans to achieve this clean energy promise often focus on building large solar installations in the desert or wind farms in mountain passes. But development of large renewable facilities can take years to address endangered species concerns, costs of new transmission and environmental impacts on local communities and parks.
Fortunately, we have more immediate ways to bring substantial renewable energy sources online. While solar panels on individual homes aren't adequate to produce the renewable power we need (although they help), there are prime locations in our cities and developed areas that have significant potential for renewable power generation. These include rooftops of large buildings and the land along our highways, as well as the canals, pipelines and other infrastructure that make up the California aqueduct. Unlike more remote areas, these sites are close to electricity consumers and the workforce.
Expanding local renewable energy production can also generate jobs and boost our economy. According to a 2004 UC Berkeley study, renewable energy creates at least twice as many jobs as the equivalent fossil fuel-based power production, while providing electricity at increasingly cost-competitive prices. And the jobs, like the energy generated, would be close to where most workers live.
But decentralized renewable energy production also faces critical barriers. At a recent workshop with UCLA and Berkeley Law School scholars, agency heads and business leaders identified and prioritized the obstacles. Financing presents a key challenge, as businesses struggle to cover the high up-front costs of renewable technology.
For many public agencies, the lack of sufficient legislative mandates to make renewable power a priority has created institutional inertia.
To overcome these barriers, California must:
-- Expand the state's "net metering" program, which gives renewable energy producers a retail credit for energy they produce that offsets their electricity bill.
-- Expand and improve the so-called "feed-in tariff" program, which has succeeded in Germany and Spain at unleashing rapid solar and wind production. This program requires utilities to provide cash payments to renewable energy producers who sell their energy back to the grid. California sets a payment rate that is too low to stimulate investment.
-- Make renewable energy production a critical part of the mission and performance expectation for state and local agencies. Without a legislative mandate, many agency leaders may hesitate to invest resources in renewable technology.
-- Prioritize efforts to bring more clean energy production online locally. California has tremendous potential to unleash an immediate renewable energy revolution. With our abundant sunshine, wind and other natural resources, we can become a world leader in clean energy production and create tens of thousands of jobs in the process. But our long-term efforts to build large-scale and remote renewable energy facilities needn't distract us from the near-term opportunities that are in our own backyard.
Nancy Skinner is the California Assembly member representing the 14th District, which includes portions of Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, Berkeley and Oakland. Ethan Elkind is the Bank of America Climate Change Research Fellow at the UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law.