Is basic solar technology the key to an energy revolution?

Plain old photovoltaic panels and innovations in energy storage and distributed generation could remake our electricity system.

  • A solar field in Lancaster, California, one of many that help generate nearly a quarter of the city's peak energy. It's shooting for a "net zero" status, wherein it produces more clean energy than it consumes.

    David McNew
  • Lancaster, California, Mayor R. Rex Parris poses with the solar panels that sit atop City Hall. Parris wants to ban dirty energy, and is battling neighboring Palmdale over its proposed hybrid gas/solar plant.

    David McNew
  • A SolarCity solar panel-covered parking structure at the JetHawk stadium, above, which generated 70 percent of the energy it used last year.

    David McNew
  • Heather Swan works for the tiny Lancaster Power Authority, which may someday produce enough energy to break free from Southern California Edison.

    David McNew
  • Residential solar in Lancaster, California, where a law mandates new housing developments average 1 kilowatt of solar per home.

    David McNew
  • A Borrego Springs resident checks real-time energy use with a monitor hooked to the town microgrid. The microgrid program allows 60 residences and small businesses to see when the grid has a heavy load, a sign for them to conserve energy.

    San Diego Gas & Electric
  • The SolarCity website updates energy production and consumption every 15 minutes, as well as historically.

    SolarCity
 

On a November afternoon just outside Lancaster, Calif., Mayor R. Rex Parris stands beaming through his foresty beard, expounding on the grave dangers of climate change. No one seems overly concerned – possibly because most of the audience speaks Mandarin as a first, and in some cases only, language. Instead, they're as cheery as Parris, flustered by neither the language barrier nor the 40-mph wind gusts that ruffle the mayor's brilliant white hair. "I used to say we were changing the world," he intones. "Now I say we're saving the world."

It sounds like hyperbole, but it might be true. Behind Parris, in a once-vacant lot, rise the beginnings of a 16-acre solar farm, developed in collaboration with U.S. Topco Energy, a Taiwan-based firm with offices just over the mountains in the San Gabriel Valley. The arrays will supply electricity to just a few hundred homes, but to hear Parris tell it, they're the first green shoots of an energy revolution – one that begins in local communities and spreads out to the planet.

Lancaster is a city of 150,000 in a region of the West Mojave Desert named the Antelope Valley for the pronghorn that roamed here before agriculture and industry left behind a strafed and empty landscape, dotted with sickly Joshua trees and rows of stucco bungalows. In the '80s, Lancaster and its twin to the west, Palmdale, offered refuge to middle-class families fleeing Los Angeles' crime and housing prices, but urban ills soon metastasized here: In 2007, Lancaster's violent crime rate was twice the national average.

Parris, a Lancaster native, was elected in 2008 to address that situation. His authoritarian methods, which included aerial surveillance of public places and harassing Section 8 renters, have drawn lawsuits and ridicule, but he's been re-elected twice. If the city is now in the throes of an unlikely renewal, it's in part because Parris launched an all-out war on the city's decades-long decay. Among the weapons in his arsenal: The polycrystalline silicon cell that turns sunlight into electricity via photovoltaic process.

Since 2010, 52 megawatts of PV solar panels have gone up on Lancaster's rooftops, schools, carports and warehouses, as well as on five city facilities, including City Hall and the baseball stadium, home to Lancaster's minor-league JetHawks. And it's been done with surprisingly little controversy: Last spring, when the city council mandated that new housing developments average one kilowatt of solar per structure, even KB Homes, the region's major housing developer, got behind it.

Parris, 61, is a big man – not simply tall, not overweight, but big. A millionaire personal injury lawyer with offices just down the street from City Hall, he is a Republican who rejects neither climate science nor government's role in people's lives. Just as he's tried to ban pit bulls from Lancaster, he'd like to erase dirty electricity from the planet (including  neighboring Palmdale, where plans to build a 570-megawatt hybrid gas and solar plant have him apoplectic). "I was elected for public safety," he says. "What could be more dangerous than the greatest catastrophe man has ever faced?" Lancaster satifies nearly a quarter of its peak energy demand with solar, but Parris wants it to be more – much more. Eventually, he'd like the city to become "net zero," producing more clean energy than it consumes.

"Of course," he says, "they could kick me out before we get there."

Parris might talk as if he's acting only out of concern for the planet. But there's more to it than that. If distributed solar is on the rise in cities like Lancaster, it's also because putting photovoltaic panels on rooftops – something that once required a hefty investment with uncertain payoff – has suddenly become a way to generate civic revenue. The technology has already saved Lancaster tens of thousands of dollars in utility costs, and a partnership with the solar-leasing company SolarCity to put panels on the city's school buildings has brought in close to $400,000 in just two years.

Howard Johnson
Howard Johnson Subscriber
Jan 13, 2014 06:29 PM
Excellent article.....Every city will eventually catch on and 10 years from now it will be the norm ! ! ! !
Peter Prince
Peter Prince Subscriber
Jan 14, 2014 07:44 PM
The web of production sources, end users, distribution and control, and regulators is extremely complex.  So complex that even the most thoughtful can get wrapped around their own axle within discussion about possible improvement.  It appears that Lancaster, CA has begun to figure out its own solution with the realization the generation of electricity from a source that has zero feed stock cost is the way to go. Yet as a society we are unable to repeat what has been done successfully on the local level.  Some suggestions on how to change the dialogue;
    1. Let the market set the rate for electricity.  The cost received for pushing an electron onto the grid through power generation should be the same as the cost charged when you extract an electron.  This cost should be for the generation of power and not include the cost of distribution, see below. Competition keeps the market honest.  If the big producers (those that have the ear of the public regulatory bodies and thus set the rates) set their prices too high they provide extra margin for the competition.  Smart meters with the ability to measure net usage would help everyone become aware of the cost of sources of electricity as the various sources ebb and flow throughout the day. With smart meters it becomes possible to let the market respond to demand instead of a regulatory body.
    2. The cost of the grid is real and needs to be acknowledged by all who use it.  Someone needs to build the grid, to manage it, to repair it,  and to upgrade it (including installation of your meter).  This all costs money.  Each and every user of the grid needs to pitch in as everyone receives the benefits.  Want to see how much the grid benefits you as a user of a PV array.  Compare the cost of a grid tied PV system to the price of an off-grid PV system.  The cost of supplying your own storage solution and backup will be multiple thousands of $, dependent on size, compared to the connection costs frequently quoted by the utility companies in the tens of dollars per month.  Society as we know it cannot exist without a grid.  Lets get its cost separated out as a line item so we can identify its true cost.
    3. As the article states the stability of the grid improves with a more diversified base.  A diversified base enables one source to carry the load when another source can’t.  If for no other reason then to keep the frequency of the grid consistent the grid requires stable sources for optimum performance.  If the supply lost when a source goes off line, whether due to night fall or maintenance, is not matched by a reduction in demand there must be a base capable to makeup the difference. Better storage options would certainly help level the daytime peaks of solar generation and reduce the need for conventional generation but cost is still prohibitive. Everyone who uses the grid benefits from being able to count on the base and everyone should pitch in to ensure the base capacity is robust.  An argument can me made that the cost of the base should be a per connection fee as each user expects their appliance to work when they turn it on.  There is also justification to include the cost of the base within the cost of production.  The rate you pay could also be used to prioritize what loads go dark first in the event of an incident.

In my opinion this is where the discussion should focus.  Getting the base right will enable our society to transform how we generate and distribute the electricity we all depend on.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Jan 15, 2014 02:22 PM
The best energy future is one that utilizes resources at hand - solar and wind in the west, tidal on the coasts, even geothermic. Imagine if we could harness the heat radiating from major urban areas, reducing the impact of 'heat islands'. Imagine (really imagine) what we could do if we could harness the heat energy under Yellowstone. Multi-source energy would shatter the fossil fuel monopoly, which is why research in alternates has been so underfunded.

Yep, I can dream.
Doug Meyer
Doug Meyer Subscriber
Jan 18, 2014 09:16 AM
Thanks Peter, very astute comment, though I would only add that society's energy use transformation will end up being a lot more about practical limits on consumption (and therefore on population and economic growth) than the dreamers will ever be able to acknowledge.
Dennis R Brownridge
Dennis R Brownridge Subscriber
Jan 26, 2014 09:55 AM
Of course we should encourage solar PV, but this story omits the basic facts: how much energy does Lancaster consume, from all sources, and how much does it generate from solar PV?