Solar energy plant may come to Cuyama

December 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Santa Barbara County may get its first utility-scale solar energy plant.

Although small compared to many other projects, the proposed 40-megawatt Cuyama Solar Array Project could produce enough electricity for 13,000 homes. It would displace 25,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year — the equivalent of taking 4,900 cars off the road. It would occupy 327 acres of actively cultivated, irrigated land, 167 of which may need to be removed from the Williamson Act ag preserve.

The sun is powerful. Each hour it sends solar energy to Earth equal to the amount of energy used by humans worldwide each year. It’s free and renewable. It doesn’t produce radioactive waste. It’s available everywhere the sun shines. It doesn’t pollute. It doesn’t require strip-mining, oil wells or transportation.

It can’t be monopolized, or the market manipulated, and no fear of losing it will pressure us to go to war to protect our national security.

Solar should be a big part of our energy supply. It can’t be the only solution. It doesn’t supply as much energy in cloudy weather, and none at night. We could store energy in batteries for those times, but they are costly, bulky and not feasible for large solar farms.

Still, it can be a significant part of the solution. A 100×100-square-mile of the southwest could supply the entire nation with all the energy it needs.

Even though the fuel is free, the upfront costs of solar have been an impediment to expanding solar power. Paying for 30 years of energy capacity to install solar for electricity at home has been cost-prohibitive. The cost, however, is coming down, and many companies are offering leases that cost about the same as electricity from the grid.

Surely we’ll see many more home units in the future.

The price per watt of solar has been coming down. It’s less than half what it was 10 years ago, and is likely to keep going down as technology improves and economies of scale kick in. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that solar power will be competitive with electricity from coal by 2015.

We should be proud in California that we are leaders in renewable energy. In 2011, we ranked first in the nation in net electricity generation from solar, geothermal, biomass, landfill gas and wind, producing 10.1 percent of our energy from these sources vs. 3.6 percent nationwide.

We ranked third in conventional hydroelectric generation — a renewable energy source that unfortunately has environmental impacts — producing 12.7 percent in California vs. 6.8 percent nationwide.

Our other sources of energy — California vs. the rest of the nation — are nuclear, 14.9 percent vs. 20.2 percent; oil, 1.4 vs. 1.1; gas, 53 vs. 23.3; and coal, 7.3 vs. 44.5.

California is requiring greater use of renewable energy in the future. Under its Renewable Portfolio Standard, investor-owned electric utilities must get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2013, 25 percent by 2016, and 33 percent by 2020.

There could be some environmental impacts from the Cuyama Solar Array, but it is likely to have a net benefit. We’ll wait to see the environmental impact report due out in February. It could be one more step toward a renewable energy future not dependent on harmful sources of energy.

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