Dan Morain

Dan Morain: City of Davis, military join to lobby for solar

Published: Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012 - 6:46 pm

The U.S. Navy has come to the defense of the ecotopian college town of Davis, where streetlights have been adjusted to make stargazing more productive.

Defense Department representatives have been walking the Capitol halls advocating for a bill that could help Davis and any other town or military base in the state become more energy independent, while permitting civilians to more easily plug in to solar power.

"Semper fi," Sen. Lois Wolk said of the military allies who are helping push for Senate Bill 843, which she's carrying on behalf of her hometown of Davis.

Davis is the only California city that owns its own solar farm, a 20-acre site behind a chain-link fence north of town, where rows of panels generate electricity that keeps lights on at City Hall and other city buildings.

The city has set a lofty goal of becoming "carbon-neutral" by 2050, and hopes to achieve it in part by permitting Davis residents to buy power generated at the farm, known as Photovoltaics for Utility Systems Applications, PVUSA for short.

Davis' partner in the undertaking is CleanPath Ventures, a San Francisco solar finance and development firm that hopes to help Davis become more green, as it makes green of its own. Nothing wrong with that.

Wolk says there's no direct state subsidy involved in midsize community solar projects that would be authorized by her bill. But part of the urgency in winning passage in the final days of the legislative session is that a federal investment tax credit could expire.

Not surprisingly, Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison oppose the legislation, which could further destabilize their business. It's not clear how the measure might fit into California's overall energy strategy, to the extent there is one. The bill directs the California Public Utilities Commission to sort out the details.

Long before Solyndra, back when Barack Obama still was piling up college debt, the U.S. Department of Energy provided seed money to PG&E for PVUSA. That was in 1986, when that wild environmentalist Ronald Reagan was president.

The facility had ups and many downs. In the early 1990s, it was used as an example of how solar energy had lost its luster. During the energy crisis in 2001, Davis acquired it from the California Energy Commission for $1, and became partners with CleanPath.

PVUSA remains an experimental site, with row after row of panels. Panels come from China, Germany, Canada and the United States. Some have worked for years. Some were being installed on the morning that Tom Price, CleanPath's policy director, showed me around. Some had flopped. It's called trial and error.

It could also be a test site for wasp killer. Dang H. Dang, PVUSA's on-site manager, had no fewer than nine cans of wasp spray in his office.

"They come out in the afternoon," he said.

CleanPath and other energy companies and municipalities backing the measure envision installing similar midsize solar facilities in other cities. The military, which is under orders by the Obama administration to increase its use of renewable energy, is backing Wolk's bill so it too can install midsize solar facilities, perhaps at Camp Pendleton.

As it is, people who install rooftop solar panels are subsidized by other ratepayers who for whatever reasons don't buy panels. SB 843 would allow the rest of us, including renters or people who have trees blocking the sun, to tap into solar energy.

Under SB 843, electrons wouldn't flow directly into people's homes. Instead, consumers would contract with one of the developers for electricity, and receive credits on their bills.

Price likens solar energy to organic food. The public "voted with their dollars," and "overnight," major stores began selling organic products.

"There is overwhelming demand. People want solar," he said.

The prospect of such change worries utilities, which by law must provide power 24 hours a day, not just when the sun shines and the wind blows. As people figure out ways to extricate themselves from the grid, utilities face a destabilized future.

Although San Diego Gas and Electric backs the measure, PG&E and Southern California Edison, the state's two largest utilities, oppose it. They've shown an ability to kill virtually any bill over the years.

PG&E executive David Rubin, who has analyzed the legislation, said it would oblige private utilities – though not municipal utility districts such as SMUD – to buy huge amounts of solar power at prices that generally are higher than other power. PG&E estimates that over 20 years, Wolk's bill could add $4 billion in costs to ratepayers who don't buy into the systems.

"We oppose this specific bill because it is a very significant procurement requirement where the costs are going to be in substantially excess of the value that we will be getting on behalf of customers," Rubin said.

California has made impressive progress toward meeting the goal set by Gov. Jerry Brown of obtaining a third of the roughly 50,000 megawatts used in the state from renewable sources.

But the vast majority of the state's alternative energy comes from the sun. The expansion of solar leaves some longtime environmental advocates wondering if California is getting too much of a good thing. Perhaps the state should tap other renewable sources, such as geothermal power.

"How much solar can we use successfully, given that it's available only part of the day?" said V. John White, a veteran lobbyist for alternative energy producers.

Such concerns shouldn't be dismissed. But if Wolk's bill becomes law, it could prove to be one of the more significant developments in the energy world in recent years.

It shouldn't come as a shock that the concept comes from Davis. Laugh all you want at what emanates from Davis, the town that proudly built a tunnel so toads would not get squished when they hop across the road. As a 20-year resident of the town, I certainly do. But there is nothing wrong with setting a goal of becoming carbon-neutral. The alternative is to keep doing the crazy stuff we've been doing for decades.

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