by Warren Karlenzig:
Fresno, California sits at the south end of one of the sunniest and hottest valleys in North America, the San Joaquin. The San Joaquin Air District is also one of the most polluted in the nation, with asthma rates many times higher than the rest of the nation and numerous air quality action days every summer causing significant health and business impacts.
Upon this tableau, the city of about a half million residents along with 11 surrounding communities and two counties announced last week they would together be developing the largest solar facility in the world. It will be more than seven times the size of the earth’s largest solar energy farm, now in Germany.
The planned 80 PV solar plant, eventually covering one square mile, will be developed by San Francisco-based Cleantech America and managed by the Kings River Conservation District (KRCD), one of the state’s new community choice aggregation districts.
“We’re so excited about what community choice can do for us,” said Dave Orth, Manager of KRCD.
Community choice allows a city, county or group of communities such as the KRCD to band together to build and produce their own energy and then transmit that over lines owned by public or investor-owned utilities. In the case of the KRCD and other California communities following in its path, the goal is to control development of new energy sources, particularly renewables, which can be solar, wind, biomass or other non-polluting technologies.
Community choice was legislated by California’s General Assembly (AB 117) in 2002 after rolling power blackouts of 2000-2001 and skyrocketing energy prices spooked the state into action to ensure that it would be more independent from the market manipulation of out-of-state companies, such as Enron.
California also passed a law that year requiring that 20 percent of all its electric power will come from renewable sources by 2010, and 33 percent by 2030. Renewables not only will provide jobs—thousands in the case of the new solar farm--but they will not add to the extreme air pollution experienced by the San Joaquin Valley as do coal and gas-fired power plants.
“Air quality is a very significant issue.” Orth said. “To improve air quality was the biggest priority for the communities that have come together as part of community choice.”
Mark Stout, San Joaquin Valley Manager of Community and Government Relations for Cleantech America, the project's developer, had a spent his career advocating renewables, clean air and green economic development before he joined the company earlier this year. He was a consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and helped campaign for the California Rewewable Energy Portfolio Standard during renewable energy's dark days--the 1990s.
"There's a lot of effort in economic development in the Fresno city and county area being put into clean tech, particularly into renewables, as a solution that addresses air quality and job growth," Stout said. Besides the jobs and clean energy, he said the price and availability of other energy sources are becoming less stable, making solar much more attractive. "We're seeing the day when North America will be stripped of natural gas."
"The vision of community choice is to let local governments make decisions about generating energy in a way that best benefits their region, and hopefully that will result in making more sustainable choices, economically and environmentally," Stout said.
Other California cities potentially following the community choice aggregation path of Fresno and the KRCD include San Francisco, Oakland and Chula Vista, along with the Bay Area’s Marin County.
Warren Karlenzig is Chief Strategy Officer at SustainLane, where he directs the company’s US city rankings, and SustainLane Government, an open-source best practices sustainability knowledgebase for state and local government officials and their constituents. Warren is lead author of the newly released How Green Is Your City? The SustainLane U.S. City Rankings (New Society Publishers). His blog is www.greenacity.com
I grew up there.
When I left in 1996 the place was still so backward for a city of 500,000. I'm glad to see signs that someone in the valley is thinking. Maybe someday they'll do something about the absolute lack of walkable communities there.
Pro-active initiatives by a cooperative is definitely good news.
but damn, hearing the world record setting solar plant is a mere 80 MW is kind of disheartening. this news compels a couple points:
a) the solar industry is just crying out for commercialized efficiency breakthroughs. a square mile of development for 80 MW of energy seems like a really weak ratio, one thats just not going to provoke wider deployment of facilities like this.
b) I don't really understand the purpose of centralizing the solar powered energy production here. IMHO Solar's key strength is the fact that production can be distributed. Why not install 80 MW worth on the rooftops of surrounding communities and kill the need to build new powerlines?
You're right--it's only a small step. Distributed rooftop generation would make more sense if there was a way to scale it up as quickly and manage it. That could be nationally, statewide or through a single utility district.
Read Dan Kammen's (UC Berkeley) excellent column on how Japan has guided a technology push and demand pull for 300 MW more rootop distributed solar generation, with costs decreasing at 10 percent per year:
Really interesting news, but in Europe we says there are others...
I think its great for Central Valley to step up and be a leader of how we should be thinking of producing energy in the future. They probably centralized the location to manage set up and installation costs.
I hope we continue to see more projects like these. The U.S. is so behind compared to Europe and Asia.