The controversy over RE development in the desert piggybacks on the issue of RE project scale, namely utility-scale projects versus distributed generation.
A report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) points to the theoretical possibility of urban utility-scale and distributed generation systems being able to meet the annual U.S. electricity use. While the numbers give distributed generation advocates hope, the study looks only at the feasibility of the technology, and does not take into account political and economic factors. But, says Anthony Lopez, one of the study’s authors, “once you take into account all the other factors, the story changes quite a bit. The study shows a very idealistic view of what could be.”
NREL analyst Easan Drury says, “No matter what the many studies out there may say, the reality is that what can be built and what will be built to meet renewable portfolio standard requirements is going to be dictated entirely by economics.”
Some utilities claim that the shift from centralized to decentralized power requires restructuring their business model, as well as implementing changes to deal with potential voltage and energy storage issues from a large-scale deployment of distributed generation systems.
“Large-scale RE projects are easy and keep things relatively status quo because they still rely on transmission, which is where the utilities make their money,” says Belinky. “We should have spent the last two decades building the appropriate RE infrastructure and preparing the utilities to make the transition to distributed generation.”
The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have come under fire for taking the middle ground, advocating for reduced barriers to distributed generation at the state levels, while supporting large-scale solar power as a necessary step in reducing climate change—what both groups have called the nation’s most serious environmental problem.
“Sure, we want distributed generation, but we are a long way from the day when state-run utility commissions will do what it takes to encourage widespread use of distributed generation. If we want to shut down coal plants, we have to accept some big solar development today,” says Sierra Club’s Barbara Boyle, senior lead for energy issues.
“The reality is that there is no free lunch when it comes to energy,” says Johanna Wald, senior attorney with the NRDC. “Any way we produce energy has impacts, some bigger than others.”
To view maps of BLM-administered lands open for solar development under the Solar PEIS, go to: http://solareis.anl.gov/