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
 

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That's precisely what Peter Kind warns of: "One can imagine a day when battery storage technology or microturbines could allow customers to be electric grid independent," he wrote. "To put this into perspective, who would have believed 10 years ago that traditional wire line telephone customers could economically 'cut the cord?' "

Indeed, says Navin, the big telephone companies chugged along with the exact same business model as the utilities do now – until the cell phone came along. Then, he says, "AT&T went from being the largest company in the world to being bought out by a subsidiary that turned it into a cell phone company. That transformation happened very fast."

Heather Swan, a tall, energetic blonde who wears spike heels even on the pitted tarmac at the solar farm, has spent most of her 31 years in Lancaster, seven of them in City Hall. She started in 2006 as an accounting temp while finishing her MBA at California State University Northridge, then moved up into the city's redevelopment department. Lancaster had been a boomtown thanks to thousands of new homes sold under subprime mortgages, but in 2008, the housing crash hit hard. "We were second in the state for foreclosures," Swan remembers, right behind Stockton.

Hoping to spur a revival, Swan honed a knack for luring people from neighboring cities to shop in Lancaster, offering gift certificates for local restaurants and getting the city to pay registration fees for cars bought on Lancaster's lots. By the time Parris had begun to court Topco and SolarCity, Swan was working in the mayor's office, and made clear that she wanted to work on solar. "I'm a tree-hugger at heart," she says.

"Solar Lancaster" fits what Swan calls her job description: "To do great things with almost no money." When Lancaster partnered with SolarCity on the schools project, Swan and Jason Caudle, along with Public Works Director Robert Neal, leveraged municipal bonds to finance 70 percent of the project, and SolarCity brought in investors to pay for the rest. Because the federal tax credit is useless to a municipality, Lancaster couldn't reap its rewards. But the investors could, and Lancaster benefits from the sale of the energy.

Now Swan is the only full-time employee of the Lancaster Power Authority, a municipal utility the city created in 2011. It doesn't amount to much yet, since it owns none of the city's solar and still depends on the regional utility, Southern California Edison. And while Lancaster has joined forces with the California Delta city of Pittsburg, 40 miles northeast of San Francisco, to build transmission that would allow the export of utility-scale solar – a plan that SCE opposes – Swan says it has no intention of breaking with SCE. "We'd have to buy up all their infrastructure. And we don't have that kind of money."

At least, not yet. As Lancaster generates more electricity on rooftops, as more 500-kilowatt solar canopies cover more parking lots, it seems inevitable that the utility's role will shrink, and perhaps ultimately disappear. When I press Swan on the direction the Power Authority has taken, on the fact of its very existence, she admits that independence is likely. "That is the natural progression," she says. "Yes."

What would it take for Lancaster to disconnect from the grid? It might be a worthwhile cause: In the same way that Mayor Parris believes solar serves public safety by cutting carbon emissions, solar, supported by storage, might also serve public safety when disaster strikes the grid. It's not hard to imagine that happening: Lancaster sits virtually on top of the San Andreas Fault, whose handiwork is visible where the Antelope Valley Freeway cuts through Avenue S in Palmdale. Swirls of shaken earth, laid down in layers over thousands of years, show how one violent event after another pushed up mountains and cracked open canyons. The next time the fault breaks – and it's long overdue – it will likely disrupt supply lines that follow its path through the mountains. Distributed energy's reliability could help more here than it did on the East Coast after Superstorm Sandy.

Jon Wellinghoff has an idea for exactly how it would work: "Microgrids," he says. "They're the only way we're going to make our energy system reliable and resilient." They're also a model for how utilities and customers generating their own power might cooperate to build a stronger grid.

Two hundred miles south of Lancaster, at the University of California, San Diego, Energy and Utilities Manager John Dilliott defines a microgrid as an electrical distribution system that shares a single point of connection to the main grid but can sometimes function without it. The university's own microgrid serves as a "living laboratory" for energy, he says, with strategically placed fuel cells, super-efficient concentrating solar arrays and zinc-bromine liquid batteries all feeding into a 42-megawatt campus-wide system. At its center, a natural gas-fired turbine generates both electricity and reusable heat, balancing the intermittent renewable power with always-on supply.

The microgrid came about for practical reasons, not revolutionary ones. The local utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, had neither the means nor the inclination to wire up the campus to support the university's massive research laboratories, including the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a world-famous climate analysis center. So in the early '90s, university engineers bumped up the voltage, built a substation and ran cables underground. The microgrid saves the institution         $8 million annually.

It's already proved its reliability: In September 2011, when a grid failure triggered a cascading blackout in San Diego and beyond, the university's system was back up in four hours – three hours before the utility. Dilliott's team is perfecting the technology that will allow an even faster response, but he doesn't trivialize the connection with San Diego Gas & Electric: The utility's larger network adds a layer of resiliency should something flicker out in the campus system.

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