Solar wins in NY, sparks controversy in CA

Big news today in NY with the passage of legislation that significantly expands the opportunities for distributed renewable energy. Specifically, the package of bills, which Governor Patterson has already pledged to sign, expand net metering up to 2 MW for all customer classes for solar and wind and expand net metering for farm waste digesters up to 500 kW. NRDC's excellent Albany advocate, Rich Schrader, sent me the following insider's overview of how we got here:

Net metering broke through the Albany slumber this session largely for three reasons: both legislative houses had new chairs of their respective Energy committees and each brought a fresh, collaborative  approach to the issue; several alternative technology business groups, including ACENY and Sun Edison, worked closely with NRDC and enviros to execute a disciplined legislative strategy; and the tumultuous oil price spikes refashioned the electric market in a matter of weeks, making solar and wind competitive products.

Sen. George Maziarz succeeded Jim Wright as Energy chair early in the session.  At around the same time, Assemblymember Kevin Cahill was appointed Energy after his predecessor, Paul Tonko, left the Assembly to head NYSERDA. Both chairs wanted to pass a bill, but the rhythm of the session early on was more a cautious minuet than a tango, until energy prices drowned pretty much every else thing out.

Sen. Owen Johnson, an influential Long Island Republican, passed his bill first, which allowed solar and methane technologies to net meter.  Assemblyman Steve Englebright passed a four-technology bill in his house, which included solar, wind, methane and fuel cells.  Our main political goal was to get as many technologies as possible in the bill without coming out of the session empty-handed.  We organized a clutch of lobby days, some with enviros-only, some with solar companies, some with wind firms. More quietly, we met over a period of weeks through the spring, with a number of Western New York senators in a delegation that included NRDC and wind and solar business leaders.  Between the steady political advocacy and the volatile market, senator after senator dropped their opposition. Finally, both chairs agreed to move several bills here at session's end, which will include solar, methane and wind.

It's nice to win some times!

In only somewhat related news on the other coast, this article ran a few days ago highlighting the controversy surrounding the siting of transmission to get renewable electricity from a proposed large-scale concentrating solar power facility in Mojave Desert to San Diego. The solar power plant would anchor a number of renewable energy projects, but as noted in the article:

[San Diego Gas and Electric's] $1.5-billion power line would cut 23 miles through the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a spot known for its hiking trails, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti and spectacular mountain views.

Not surprisingly, the transmission proposal has run into stiff opposition. Some other environmental groups argue that SDG&E should avoid the transmission all together through rooftop PV. As NRDC's advocacy for net metering makes clear, we certainly agree that we need more of that, but ultimately that won't be enough. We don't know yet if the solar plant is the best option, but we have said that if it is, the transmission line should follow a different that we believe will significantly reduce the impacts. Here is the letter we filed opposing the proposed line and advancing the alternative.

SDG&E's VP for renewables is right when he's quoted:

"It's a trade-off," said Stuart Hemphill, Edison's vice president for renewable and alternative power. "Clean energy perhaps requires building infrastructure in potentially sensitive areas. There's no way around it."

But that doesn't mean that we can afford to give up trying to minimize those tradeoffs and the impacts of that infrastructure. That's why NRDC is part of the California Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative, which has as part of its mission statement the goal of planning for renewable energy transmission needs so that they can happen where they are needed and are developed in an appropriate and environmentally responsible way. We need to expand this type of planning nationally. It will reduce the unnecessary impacts from renewable energy infrastructure and, almost as important, it will reduce the controversy around this infrastructure and thus speed its development.