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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San Diego Gas & Electric also has a microgrid project of its own in Borrego Springs, Calif., where 2,780 utility customers, many of them retirees, cluster in a desert valley served by a single, remote transmission line. Built over the past year with federal and state grants, the Borrego Springs microgrid firms up 900 kilowatts of solar PV with lithium-ion batteries. On Sept. 6, when a lightning storm took out 20 power poles, the microgrid kept power on for more than 1,000 customers, including the local library, where a designated "cool zone" stayed open – a literal lifesaver for elderly residents in the late-summer heat.

Like UC San Diego, Borrego Springs serves as an energy laboratory. "We're learning what the utility of the future might look like," says San Diego Gas & Electric spokesman Hanan Eisenman, "We can test technologies; we can see how distributed resources interact (with the grid). And we get to see what happens when we have more of a two-way relationship with the customer."

Which brings up another question, one Jeff Navin has pondered a lot: "What if utilities had gotten ahead of the curve and seen the opportunity in distributed energy?" he asks. What if, instead of watching SolarCity come in and scoop up customers, Southern California Edison had embraced the lease model first, installing solar arrays for free and milking the kickbacks? What if, instead of battling net metering, it had worked to streamline solar permitting?

After all, Navin asks, "If you're a consumer, who would you trust to provide your power? The utility that you've known and had a relationship with for 20 years? Or this brand-new startup that you've never heard of?"

Lancaster, by contrast, now moves so fast on permitting that installers, says Parris, call the city "not just fast, but China fast." And Heather Swan is slowly growing her solar team at the Lancaster Power Authority. "It really is the future for this city, this utility," she says. "It's what's going to keep our parks open, our streets paved, our sheriffs on the beat. It could change everything."

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