OpEd: Distributed Solar Deserves a Closer Look

by Ken Miller


Amidst the largely uncritical celebration of offshore wind (EcoNews, 9/21), Widespread Distributed Solar Photovoltaics (WDS) deserves an accurate representation. 

WDS produces electricity from solar panels installed on the built environment where impacts have already occurred, close to where the electricity will be used: public and private roofs, parking lots and other already developed or “improved” spaces, including brownfields and abandoned mill sites.

Panels networked into solar and community nano- and micro-grids charge batteries and electric vehicles (EVs), heat and illuminate buildings, and sell electricity to PG&E, all the while retaining resilience during natural disasters. Many of us would share in networked energy wealth, selling excess electricity to the grid, adding equity to our buildings, and increasing our access to reliable electricity during grid disruptions. Renters (and owners) benefit from lowered electricity bills as owners benefit from equity and tax credits. Government buildings, spaces and vehicles would become power-generating revenue centers offsetting the need for tax proceeds.

The EU is currently implementing WDS in order to balance the reliability and resilience of the main grid, among all the other benefits.

Widespread distributed solar produces electricity from solar panels close to where the electricity will be used: public and private roofs, parking lots, etc. Photo source: Freepik.com

The unique benefit of WDS is its relation to EVs. Over half of our emissions are due to transportation, so we must electrify it. Without WDS charging EVs, in order to avoid relying on nukes and fossil fuels we would have to saturate precious habitat and vital agricultural lands with solar panels and wind turbines. The rooftop solar-EV combo pays for itself rapidly, as EVs become mobile storage devices that can power your home, business or our dialysis centers (and proliferating cannabis grows) during grid shutdowns.

Funding mechanisms for rooftop solar and WDS are readily available, including grants, but our County has prioritized central electricity generation, sold to us by remote investors, and so it has not summoned the solar industry with their various options. 

One of many examples of what we are missing because of this bias: A low-income friend here is receiving free Tesla Powerwall battery storage units for rooftop solar panels to charge, in exchange for supplying the grid with electricity when needed. 

Introducing a 30 percent microgrid tax credit bill in Congress recently, Rep. Jimmy Panetta explained, “Expanding and deploying microgrids can harness clean energy sources, keep our homes and critical infrastructure connected when the larger grid fails, and lead to reliable and consistent electricity for our homes and safety for our communities.” 

Contrary to RCEA’s propaganda, all roofs need not be “angled in the same direction” nor do we need to cover 90% of roofs, just the appropriate ones and spaces. My panels face south and west, and east facing ones are not uncommon. If our infamously foggy airport microgrid is any benchmark, we’ve got plenty of feasible spaces. Best of all, no endeavor creates more local jobs, with fewer environmental impacts.

There is no argument that we must transition to non-carbon energy sources, and offshore wind is a good bet, albeit not without reason for caution. Most concerning locally are the ongoing social and environmental impacts associated with an industrialized port and sea-lanes, and the transmission infrastructure. The manufacture, assembly, transport and ocean traffic maintaining the floating turbines in highly corrosive seawater will all be conducted with specialized labor, creating a permanent industrial environment. 

The transmission infrastructure necessary to connect to the grid is not easy on the landscape, seabed or eye, sending its power through cables emitting electromagnetic fields, affecting benthic and pelagic habitats, and incendiary transmission wires, often using sulfur hexafluoride (S6H) in thousands of electrical switches.  S6H is 23,500 times more potent than C02 as a greenhouse gas, and persists for a thousand years (there are safer alternatives); hydrogen production at sea could avoid some of these problems, but that would require a floating factory. 

Effects on our fog, air and ocean wave patterns from downwind turbulence, heat, and pulsating sound are largely under-evaluated causes for concern. Due to the energy extracted from the wind, the upstream air behind the wind turbines is lower pressure and turbulent, mixing air up and down, stirring up fog, and influencing winds. 

Most alarm focuses on impacts to birds, which is not easily monitored, prompting this pertinent caveat from avian scientists at the American Bird Conservancy: “Only focusing on large, industrial-scale wind projects, whether on or offshore, does not consider potential, less harmful alternatives, including distributed solar generation on existing structures (e.g. of buildings, homes, parking lots, canals, etc.) that do not harm wildlife or alter pristine habitat.” 

 Wind turbines produce electricity with enormous blades turning either gears or direct drives. It is 19th century technology (so are nuclear, biomass, coal and gas that boil water, and hydro, all gear turners). WDS on the other hand electrifies in the same way that we living organisms do, quietly, by ionic exchange with negligible waste heat. 

Also, unlike WDS, which incorporates itself into the built environment, the offshore wind project creates an entirely new industrial economy. We may be addicted to such transformations; Humboldt’s history of mega-corporate exploitation of our resources reverberates throughout today’s logged and hydraulically mined watersheds, dammed rivers, and clearcut habitats.  

I suppose NEPA and CEQA reviews will address these issues and more, hopefully more honestly and thoroughly than did Terra-Gen’s. 

WDS and offshore wind should not be an either/or proposition; we should implement WDS irrespective of the offshore project because it can be done tomorrow, benefit all of us economically, electrify and quiet our transportation, and stimulate even sunnier and more densely built regions of the state and nation to follow suit. 

Underlying these choices is the concept that climate change solutions must prioritize habitat protection, a lesson that should have been learned from the Terra-Gen ordeal.