California Governor Jerry Brown charged solar leaders with finding a way to install 12,000 megawatts of distributed solar by 2020. “Find the path through the thicket,” he told them. “On the other side, we will have our solar future.”
The 12,000 megawatts are part of a 20,000-megawatt solar capacity goal Brown set for the coming decade. Distributed solar is, Brown said in the keynote session of a two-day UCLA conference on the sector’s opportunities and challenges, “resilient and secure because it is so distributed.”
California’s proposed centralized solar power plants will quickly place it among the installed capacity world leaders, but “it will be a little harder to become the leader in distributed solar power,” Brown said, noting Germany’s 11,000 megawatts and China’s rapid rise. But distributed solar energy, he said, is a “great breakthrough technology that can be invested in, generate the jobs, generate the energy security and keep California among the world’s leading innovators.”
Energy, Brown said, “is a huge part of a modern economy and the sun is abundant power.” But, he added, “there are technical problems, there are financial problems, there are regulatory problems, there are coordination problems."
“The various agencies -- the California Independent System Operator (ISO), the PUC and the California Energy Commission -- are going to be working together,” he promised. And if local communities or regulators block development, he said, his office will act, because “some kinds of opposition you have to crush.”
Lyndon Rive, CEO of Solar City, noted that while the building of a rooftop solar system takes two to three days, “the whole process takes an average of two months.” Over-the-counter permits are available in San Jose, he said, while “L.A. is not so great.” Rive laughed off the question of who needs to be crushed in L.A., but noted that with innovative no-upfront-payment models like the one offered by his company, the cost of burdensome permitting processes looms larger.
A bigger obstacle, Rive also said, may be the fact that people still don’t know that rooftop solar “is real and is viable” and that “it puts local jobs in every community. I know there’s a lot of emphasis on the jobs exported to China for panel manufacturing,” he said, “but two to three times more jobs are actually created in delivery. And you cannot outsource delivery.”
“The average American,” David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, said, “spends 2.4 percent of their disposable income on electricity and twice that on fueling their car.” California’s role as a leader in both electric vehicles (EVs) and distributed solar, he said, puts the state in a position “to incent businesses to tie those two together.” Raising consumer awareness, he added, would create a more active market for both.
“No one argues that rooftops generally are a non-controversial place to put distributed solar,” Crane said. “But how do you get businesses to lead?” With a synthesis of distributed generation, EVs and smart grid technology, Crane said, “what we’re talking about is the democratization of energy use.” It is about, he explained, “individuals having choices and controlling their own energy destiny.”
Asked how he would answer Washington politicians who don’t see solar technology as viable, Crane said Washington politicians “have no credibility,” and added, “We’re much more focused on what’s being done at the state level because we don’t have any faith that anything is going to be done at the federal level.”
To the point that the Obama administration has at least removed obstacles, Brown responded, “It’s not enough just to not put up hurdles. That’s a very low bar. What about getting stuff done?” The 2008-09 stimulus programs were, Brown acknowledged, “the biggest renewable energy investment program America ever had.” But they were the product of a “massive fear,” he said. "You can’t get that very often.”
“When we made a commitment to be carbon neutral in 2007,” said Rick Needham, Director of Green Business Operations and Strategy for Google, Inc., “there weren’t a lot of great options.” So Google started investing in R&D and in building. “We’ve committed over $780 million to renewables, in projects alone, and over half of that is in the state of California.”
The investments have brought Google satisfactory returns, Needham said, but are also intended to communicate to other investors that “there are opportunities to make good returns and diversify your cash holdings while promoting an industry that makes good sense.”
The discussion homed in on the conference topic, identifying resolutions to the things holding distributed solar back. Brown talked about streamlining regulatory hurdles in California’s 58 counties and 400+ cities. “It is true when you have 38 million people,” he said, “that there’s always going to be somebody who says no to change” -- and in our participatory system, “any old fool can object to anything.”
"The system has evolved tens of thousands of laws, hundreds of thousands of regulations,” Brown continued. The way forward? “You have to push,” he said, because “if we let the process unfold, we’re not going to get to the goal.”
Obstruction can come from distributed political power within any of the permitting authorities, Brown said, “especially when we’re in a position of deficit instead of surplus.” As such, “We need a centralized base of arbitrary intervention” to fight back. “Somebody has to think long term, that somebody has to have authority, and they have to exercise it.”