Think globally, amp locally?
By Thibault Worth
California’s mandated goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020 may be bold and ambitious. But there’s room to raise the bar still higher, say proponents of local renewable power.
A report commissioned by Governor Jerry Brown last year — and released this week by Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) — lays out a plan for developing 12,000 Megawatts of renewable power generation close to homes and workplaces by 2020.
It’s an ambitious goal – three times the capacity of California’s two nuclear power plants. But it’s attainable, say co-authors Jeffrey Russell and Steven Weissman, who examine barriers to local renewable energy production — from grid planning and financing to fire safety and building permits — and provide a step-by-step guide to overcoming them.
“Developing renewable energy in urban areas will create jobs, help the environment, and give communities more control over where their energy comes from and how much they pay for it,” says Russell, a senior research fellow at Berkeley Law School.
But the biggest challenge to the plan may be political. The electrical grid is currently designed to take energy from a small number of discrete power sources located far from urban centers. The priority of the California Independent System Operator, which manages 80% of California’s electric grid, is to forecast demand and reduce uncertainty in supply. Vastly increasing the number of inputs through local renewable generation complicates matters.
“The plan is controversial because it is changing the business model that utilities that have been used to for some time,” says Russell. “It’s decentralizing the generation of power.”
Localization has its benefits too. In addition to giving end-users more control, it would also help address the problem of line loss, by which about seven percent of electricity generated in the U.S. dissipates during transmission over long-distance power lines. Local micro-grids would also help reduce congestion on the main grid during peak demand periods.
“The report is a blueprint for California, and it also offers a model for the rest of the country,” said report co-author Steven Weissman, director of the energy program at Berkeley Law School.
The report’s recommendations reflect discussions at the Governor’s Conference on Local Renewable Energy Resources, held this past July in Los Angeles, as well as extensive research and analysis by Russell and Weissman.