Solar power works best when it stays small and local

  • Janine Blaeloch


In the spring of 2010, I was minding my own business, directing a small nonprofit whose focus for 15 years has been to fight any and all attempts to privatize public land.  From bad land swaps that benefit billionaires and cheat the public to congressional selloff schemes, we thought we'd seen it all.  Then along came the Obama administration's push to deal with climate change and energy dependence by turning our Southwest deserts into factories for industrial-scale solar energy.

Cheered on by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and subsidized through the Energy and Treasury departments, what's come to be called "Big Solar" was on track to take over hundreds of thousands of acres of public land. While the developments would be on land leased, not purchased, from the government, it became clear to us that the transformation and permanent industrialization of the land really amounted to privatization.

Yet only a few people seemed to be fighting it. Fewer still talked about alternatives.  That spring, along with solar wonks and desert lovers from California and Nevada, I co-founded Solar Done Right, an informal grassroots coalition, to oppose the solar-industrialization of our desert public lands and to promote distributed generation -- local, small-scale -- in the built environment and on already-degraded lands.

We started that fall with an advocacy trip to Washington, D.C.  We quickly found that while Democrats were concerned about the environmental impacts, they were either resigned to the supposed necessity of Big Solar on public land, or indignant that we would oppose any kind of renewable-energy development.

As for the Republicans, they essentially wanted more oil and gas development and viewed distributed generation with suspicion. In any event, when the Republicans won back the House and Congress settled into profound gridlock, we could see that grassroots advocacy at that level was futile.

To make matters worse, the Obama administration had become committed to Big Solar.  The president, who plainly has no feeling for public land, handed over our country's renewable energy policy to the Interior Department, an outfit most skilled in the handing out of public resources.

Even as the Interior Department issues 30-year leases to the renewables industry, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified 15 million acres of developed, degraded and contaminated lands across the country that are also potentially suitable for solar energy development.

Behind the scenes, but seemingly in full control, are the same entities that have long dominated our development of fossil fuels: BP, Chevron, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs. With corporations steering policy toward massive solar arrays and away from small-scale and local renewable energy, it is virtually impossible to counter them at the federal-policy level.

Bringing up the rear are national environmental organizations such as The Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which have bought into this disastrous approach. Funded by the very foundations and corporations that thrive on the status quo, their job is to create the illusion of change for the better, while ensuring that nobody upsets apple carts or makes waves.

Yet daunting as this all sounds, there is one way to work around the entrenched political, environmental and corporate power arrayed on the side of Big Solar, and that way is to go to the people.

Citizens don't serve the monopolistic utilities, and they don't make decisions based on what's best for investment firms. They instantly understand how local renewables better serve our interests. If you tell them about the havoc being wrought upon desert ecosystems, most react by saying that it's wrong. Tell them they can have solar panels on their roofs and feed power into a community grid, and they're all over it. Distributed generation is an angst-free solution that makes sense to real people. It serves taxpayers, ratepayers, job-seekers and desert tortoises.

In that light, the Solar Done Right coalition is focusing on public education and engagement to bring change. The vehicle is our Call to Action for Energy Democracy, a platform that outlines the consequences of industrial-scale, public land-focused renewable energy development. We think small and local is the way to go, and we're working to build a movement toward sensible renewable-energy development from the ground up.

Janine Blaeloch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She lives in Seattle and is the founder and director of the Western Lands Project. Visit for more information about its Call to Action and for answers to the questions: "Aren't you just NIMBYs?" and "Don't desert tortoises secretly want more shade from solar panels?"

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

John R DeCoville
John R DeCoville Subscriber
Apr 17, 2012 04:07 PM
The only way that Solar will win will be when Solar becomes Big Solar. America has been defined by cottage-industry start-ups being eventually superseded by super-sized enterprises.

The argument against railroads in the 1830's was that their day had not come and may never come because railroads were not financially viable in the early 1830's. But President Andrew Jackson insisted that railroads be subsidized and be made BIG.

The last year of the first round of Federal Subsidies ended in 1844 with railroads being laid at least 1,000 miles a year. By 1848, the mileage was up to 3,000 miles a year.

Solar makes sense when it is moved "up to scale" so that average middle-class families understand it and can integrate it into their lifestyle.

The vision espoused by Janine Blaeloch is not consistent with what is needed to served more than tens of millions, no, hundreds of millions of Americans.

Solar must be competitive, must meet a variety of social, environmental and business goals or it will remain bottled-up as a Boutique-Curiosity to be soon forgotten.

I want solar, I want Big Solar, and I do not want Janine Blaeloch's narrow vision bred of "micro-brew" small non-profits to place "speed-bumps" in the way of America dominating this industry world-wide. I want our continent carpeted with solar-panels and wind-farms.

I think this is of strategic importance. And it is going to get a little messy. It will be a hell of a lot better than our continent being covered with shale-oil ponds more than 10 miles in area. And it will be good for the economy.

I do not want rural areas being excluded from the development, training and enterprise-building as was done in Portugal.

I do not think this is, necessarily, an "either-or" proposition. But, Janine, your approach is polarizing and one-dimensional. There is a "big-picture" here. Step back and look again.
D H Shaver
D H Shaver Subscriber
Apr 17, 2012 04:09 PM
Besides opinions on what's "right", what resources does your group provide (or can you point me to) that show operational efficiency, development costs, investment returns, and life cycle management of centralized v. distributed solar projects? Some of the challenge is clearly cost of infrastructure in both cases. Only one (pretty small, IMO) aspect of infrastructure is the land acquisition.

As a homeowner, I can spend $50K on a small solar system and that investment is now obviously co-located with my house. Given that an average family lives in a house for five to seven years, that investment is mostly "left behind" and must be made again if solar will again be used to generate power. It would be interesting to also see numbers on what percent of investment is paid back when selling a house with a small PV system. I fear that much like a pool or 19 SEER A/C units, a buyer would consider the PV a "bonus" but not pay for it outright.

I think the broader issue is that renewable energy is, generally, at a cost disadvantage to classic energy production. This disadvantage is likely worse when the generation is on a very small "local" scale. I'd love resources to back up or disprove my assumption. Said another way, as an investor I want to invest $100M in solar production; do I want to build a few large farms managed 24x7 by professional engineers or do I want to install 2,000 home-based units? These are very different business models not only in terms of up-front challenge, but also in terms of daily operations.

None of this is to at all say I'm anti-solar; in fact, I'm actually pro-solar. My desire is to understand from a business case perspective the resources and research that has been done to make the case for centralized v. distributed solar projects. You can't harp on desert snake habitat when talking to a businessman or politician. Ultimately the business case must clear and have risk-reward ratios that are balanced against other options.

As an example: The Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) on the Western Slope of Colorado has historically had a pretty progressive view towards generation capacity. Helping homeowners pay for heatpump systems and/or PV systems (using their lower borrowing costs) and installing this "distributed infrastructure" around the area is smart thinking for a NON-profit rural co-op. As an example, DMEA has a great community PV system where you can "lease" time:[…]e&id=156&Itemid=101

All great things DMEA has done aside, serving a rural community as a local non-profit is a completely different prospect than metro-sized power generation infrastructure.
John R DeCoville
John R DeCoville Subscriber
Apr 17, 2012 05:06 PM
Private solar-farms are a big plus and can become part of the asset-value of a home or farm. But the infrastructure has to be there. I want hundreds of millions of solar panels being sold out of Home Depot. Non-profit will therefore be "scaled up" too. I want every American to be in the loop with Solar. -- JdC
John R DeCoville
John R DeCoville Subscriber
Apr 17, 2012 05:33 PM
As distributed gains traction, we want to be sure that we, the home and farm-owners do not get shoved aside. We do need political coverage to protect our supply of panels, inverters and battery-farms.

D H Shaver, I want BOTH distributed and local, enterprise and private and personal electrical generation. I want the generation to be attached to the individual residence that is sold along with the residence when ownerhisp changes. What that means is that there will be many approaches to electircal generation. Electrical Generation can be very small if the industry, as a whole, is scaled up. That is where we can buy solar panels at Walmart, Homedepot and at our local hadware store.

Please get togther with all forms of allies including President Obama!
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
Apr 18, 2012 11:50 AM
Thanks for commenting, all.

There's a lot of "built environment" out there to accommodate solar--from rooftop to wholesale installations. As I mention in the column, lands identified by the EPA, and mapped in detail, comprise 15 million acres--how does it make sense for us to be breaking new ground, causing irreversible impacts, and virtually privatizing our public lands, when we have much better choices? Solar on remote public lands has only been able to limp forward with massive subsidies and loan guarantees--imagine the same amount of support and policy momentum dedicated to distributed generation. Without further fragmentation of ecologically functional lands; without the massive transmission infrastructure required--and, by the way, an approach national-security types like.. DH, you may want to look at this report by the Local Clean Energy Alliance: Also see John, the carpeting of the continent (though hyperbolic) is the policy underway.
John R DeCoville
John R DeCoville Subscriber
Apr 18, 2012 01:08 PM
In Germany, the Federal Republic is now lining the Autobahns with solar panels. Is that "privatizing" public lands?

On Subsidies, our history as a nation is replete with examples of key industries transitioning from subsiides to vibrant industries.

HCN readers by being "purists" about small is beautifull -- always will sideline themselves from the public debate and as 'crackpots' at worst. Cut it out!
Carl Roberts
Carl Roberts Subscriber
Apr 18, 2012 03:05 PM
Crackpots unite! I am wondering if John, or DH have any active or passive solar in their current homes. ? For a $ 5,800 investment we have solar heat and domestic hot water system. Our heat bill for a year is around $300. We have floor heat that swings both ways, propane fired or solar. The solar components were free, left over from the tax subsidized solar push of the 80's Many of those are still in great working shape but no longer being used. Much thanks to Al Haack for trouble free design and installation. Of course it helps to orient a building and use green materials during construction. I will agree with Janine on privatization of public lands. Bad idea! So easy to think green and talk green. With very little more effort you can walk the walk. Larger scale projects do not always offer additional efficiency. Having said that, I would rather see a monster pv project on fed. land than more drilling. C. Roberts
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
Apr 18, 2012 03:48 PM
One thing that stymies honest discussion of this stuff is that we are given, or we make mantras of, false choices. It doesn't have to be the monster developments on public land vs. more drilling. (If the current policies endure, we will get more drilling regardless). It also doesn't have to be the big green groups' false choice --surrender to the climate crisis or build big plants. The real choice is between big, damaging solar that profits the same old players and the efficient, democratic, environmentally benign option that works better for the planet and us.
Peter Prince
Peter Prince Subscriber
Apr 24, 2012 10:33 AM
As Janine points out the construction of remote, large-scale installations is frequently saddled with heavy environmental impact and expensive infrastructure needs. It's a typical get it done quick approach to a long-term problem. Its expensive to both the budget and the environment but it is politically expedient. If this is to change then the underlying drivers need to change first.
The benefits of localized generation are numerous including; no disturbance to green field sites; elimination of requirements for new transmission lines; increased diversity of generation sources, increasing overall reliability; increased awareness of the connection between production and consumption.
To realize the benefits the following limitations need to be addressed.
Accountability. With distributed generation who will ensure the lights come on when you throw the switch?
Increased uncertainty. Distributed generation with private ownership inserts unknowns into historical models for maintenance and profitability of very large and very complex systems. These are huge concerns if you have hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars invested in existing equipment.
Excessive management costs. With a unique design, permitting and maintenance required for each installation the economy of scale becomes unfavorable.
Poor return on investment. Many lenders utilize appraising standards that do not recognize the dollars invested in electrical generating infrastructure. This effectively reduces the timeframe available to generate a positive return on investment making traditional comparisons misleading.
Market restrictions on the size of generating capacity. The capacity of local generation is frequently limited to local consumption as the transmission lines were funded by private sources that expect a return on their investment.
Discounted impact of environmental degradation. Decision on when and how to generate electricity are dollar-based decisions performed on spreadsheets. Degradation to the environment is difficult to quantify in terms of dollars and is frequently delegated to footnotes in the assessments.
These are not technical problems. These are problems associated with organization and regulation. These are not insignificant problems to overcome. Add in a large dose of the fear of the unknown and the process makes it very easy to justify the continuation of the methods we have always used. However this does not mean the benefits of resolving the problems are not worthy of pursuit.
Every time I fly into an airport in the South West and look down on the hundreds of acres of cars baking in the full sun I see the potential for localized generation of electricity with minimal environmental impact and minimal transmission requirements. The organization that can crack that nut and capture the cost reductions of local generation will make a substantial amount of money.
John R DeCoville
John R DeCoville Subscriber
Apr 24, 2012 12:46 PM
In my Sun City Community of mostly conservative, Republican-Leaning residents who move here and vote against school bonds and mine our water for their golf-courses, I see very few houses with solar panels either on the roof or on the ground. Out of 2,400 homes there are now 30+ Solar-Array equipped houses and I have been sitting at an information table educating some quite non-understanding neighbors. Or maybe some of them never want to understand. They are concerned that solar panels will block their view of the Pusch Ridge to the north of Tucson. The economics are getting better because solar like computers is on "Moore's Curve"

Both DH and CR got the investment wrong. DH was way too high at $50,000 and CR way too low at $5,800. DH would want to invest $50,000 if he were powering four households or had a huge machine-shop. CR must live in a 400 square foot straw-bale home, which is OK, but does not serve to educate my neighbors.

And education is working. I never thought I would see upwards to 40/2400 homes electrified this way. The people who did the angriest responses to the solar have now moved out after they found out that no retaliation would be tolerated.

The economics still depend on subsidies. That is why I want to see solar "scaled up". As I wrote earlier, one Home Depot now is selling panels. I want to see all of them doing that. I also want all future highway construction wrapped up with panels. I want it so that no "big box" store can go without a roof-full of panels.

In the future, here in the southwest, I want no parking lot without the promised intelligent panels that willl replace asphalt so that the parking lot is always generating electricity.

I believe that Janine Blaeloch is indulging in "false choices" because we still have a ways to go before solar is totally self-sustaining. I do not want the Republicans I regularly debate to throw at me, quotes from JB or CR.

Thank you everyone!

John deCoville
Carl Roberts
Carl Roberts Subscriber
May 01, 2012 11:14 AM
I should have been clear on having done the work myself. Our home is 2,100 sq.' Using recycled panels and building with this as a forethought rather than an afterthought makes it a lot cheaper. For full disclosure we also burn some of the applewood that we prune out of our orchards. R-50 walls provided by NuDura ICF panels keeps heat loss to a minimum. Just think of the savings to be had if the planners of your neighbor hood had bothered to orient the homes to take advantage of the more than abundant sun. Integrating correct overhangs could cut the cooling expenses by a lot. Having said this, I'm sure the hardest part would be getting your "conservative" neighbors to actually conserve anything. I do see your point John. CR
John R DeCoville
John R DeCoville Subscriber
May 01, 2012 12:18 PM
Thank you, CR, good point about home - orientation! The orientation of a house is a BIG factor for both passive and active solar. Now, thanks to the activists, "Net-Metering" is in place. Also no HOA can prevent the easiest and most optimal installation possible of Solar Panels.

Another point, you brought up CR, is the proper design of overhangs or extended eaves, such as our house has. Being at 32 degrees North with some of the most intense sun in the world, our eaves are a life-saver. During the winter I like flooding the west side of our east-west oriented house with powerful sunlight coming in, at its lowest, at a 34 degrees angle. This cuts down our winter heating bill.

My Republican neighbors that are pragmatic can be talked to as long as I practice Thich Nhat Hanh's "Deep Listening". The word "conservation" does push a negative hot-button with my Republican neighbors -- but I am making headway.

I still have many Democratic and Independent neighbors. Some of my Tea-party neighbors are completely unapproachable.

The arguments I have successfully used with my pragmatic Republican neighbors has been the, "have you thought that every time you fill your gas tank, you might send money to someone who wants to blow us up?" Another successful argument has been Andrew Jackson’s desire to exceed England’s push for rail-lines.

Back to house-orientation: our community planners were totally unconscious of these concerns back in the 70's when they were planning their assault on the southwest. My home is properly oriented by accident. I live here because my previous wife was dying 11-12 years ago, and I wanted her near services. In 2000 we were moving from our dream-home in the Chiricahuas, in Southwest Arizona, that was properly oriented and was totally passive-solar.

I most totally want to up level energy concerns to the consciousness of the most people possible. I am staying on message and want to keep people away from false choices.

Thank you for your thoughts CR!
Janine, "Solar Works Best when it is small and local" IS a false choice, it is not a "One size fits all". It is appropriate under certain circumstances but not others
Carl Zichella
Carl Zichella
May 15, 2012 04:46 PM
It is terribly misleading and downright wrong to say we can avoid the hard choices in confronting climate change. Wer cannot. But we CAN site large scale projects in good places and build transmission strategically to serve it that avoids major impacts. Yes, let's get ALL the distributed solar we can. But we will not be able to meet the climate challenge -- decarboinizing the nation's energy supply -- simply with roof top or distributed solar. The numbers simply do not work. Analysis after analysis shows we need a major commitment ro renewables at all scales, a heroic commitment to expanded energy efficiency, changes in the way we operate both the distribution and bulk grid (especially to accommodate the maximum amount of distributed solar we can get) , AND the introduction of new technologies like demand side management and energy storage, to meet climate goals. With changes already evident on the landscape due to global warming, and the forecast for habitats and species getting increasingly grim, we need to do what is right for the places (and people) we love. We need to change the way we fuel this economy. There is no easy solution. We need to stop pretending there is and get on with it.
John R DeCoville
John R DeCoville Subscriber
May 16, 2012 12:55 AM
Carl Zichella. Something that our author here does not GET is that Big Solar is a critical component to the Solarization of the United States. Distributed, farming, rooftops only scratch the surface. Hundreds of thousands of acres have to be committed to big-time Solar Projects that can look intimidating at first glance. But we need those the most. To the Southwest of Phoenix is:

At 17 megawatts, this is still only a pilot. I want to see Solar Farms producing in the Giga watts not in the mega watts to make this real.

Sun Zia promised or hinted that solar and other renewables were in the mix for its rapaciously designed right-of-ways for high capacity power-lines. Grass-roots groups did read the fine-print and forced the BLM to restate the scoping statement to drop the phrase "renewable". We have a ways to go. We do have "good places" for big solar and the impacts are, at times, dramatic. Get over it.

Hard choices are here and some of them will be unpleasant. They will involve 20-mile-wide valleys paved with solar panels. This is vastly superior to the same area covered with oil rigs. Just drive from L.A. to San Pedro harbor and see what a landscape covered with smelly, gooey oil rigs really mean to us. Then Solar Panels look great! Small and local may be in the mix but they are not the main course! Not by a long shot. I agree with Carl Zichella that saying there is an easy solution is a fantasy. Even Big Solar is going to bring us some hurt and some fights.

Janine Blaeloch, thank you for giving me this forum to raise issues critical to making strides in partially decoupling the North American Continent from dangerous Mideast oil. Janine Blaeloch, also that you for being open-minded enough to acknowledge the comments posted here. This is only a pit-stop on the long road to more energy independence for the United States, Canada and Mexico (yes! Mexico!). Some wonderful-sounding discoveries have awful "gotchas" such as fracking for oil. Fractioning has some yet unplotted consequences that I fear could be permanent, but does greatly increase the oil flow. I want Big Solar to make a BIG contribution.