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By Jim Bell

December 12, 2010 (San Diego)--Here we go again, justifying doing something bad to do something supposedly good.


I’m referring to the plan to scrape off hundreds of square miles of desert and other habitat areas to install solar collecting devices that convert direct solar light into electricity. This approach will also require that more plant and animal habitats will have to be damaged to construct and maintain transmission lines to deliver electricity produced by remote solar power plants to cities, where most of the power is needed.


Obviously, scraping off land to install renewable energy to electricity producing devices will hurt all the plants and animals on the land to be scraped off. It will also hurt animals that now use the land to be scraped off for food, water and migration. But don’t we have to have remote solar to electricity sites to become renewably electricity self-sufficient in urban areas?


Absolutely not!


In fact, much of the United States can become renewable electricity self-sufficient, and do it in ways that are both cost-effective and life-support-system-effective. Because of laws like AB 117 (CCA or Community Choice Aggregation) in California, this option is already available to cities and counties in some states. Basically it allows cities and counties in those states to become CCA municipalities. This means that cities and counties in those states can choose to become electricity supply and price secure by making their buildings and infrastructure more electricity use efficient and by installing PV panels on roofs and covered parking lots.


Assuming 1.000 sq. ft. of roof and parking lot per capita, San Diego County, where I live, can use free-market forces to cost-effectively become renewably electricity self-sufficient. This can be accomplished by increasing the County’s electricity use efficiency by 40% and installing 15% efficient PV panels over 17% its roofs and parking lots, (shaded parking).


Other benefits of becoming renewable electricity self-sufficient include:


+ Eliminating the need to scrape off habitat to accommodate remote direct solar installations and transmission lines to deliver the electricity they produce to urban areas. Land under buildings and parking is already disturbed and damaged plant and animal habitat. Installing efficiency improvements in building and PV panels on roofs and over parking lots eliminates the need to impact new land.


+ Being more electricity supply and price secure. The increase in electricity use efficiency and the electricity produced on local roofs and parking lots cannot be cut off by the failure of transmission lines from remote suppliers to urban areas. Increasing electricity use efficiency and installing PV panels on roofs and over parking lots would also make it difficult for acts of nature, accidents or intentional human acts to cause serious damage or disruption to a county’s production, distribution and storage of renewably generated electricity.


+ Changing San Diego County’s negative-electricity purchase cash-flow into a positive-electricity-purchase-cash-flow. Currently San Diego County exports one billion plus dollars each year to purchase imported electricity or imported natural gas or nuclear fuel to make electricity locally. If the County were renewable electricity self-sufficient today, all the money now exported to pay for imported electricity or fuels to produce it locally will be kept in the County’s economy. Initially this money will be used to hire businesses and its employees to make the County more electricity use efficient and install PV panels on roofs and over parking lots. Because the businesses and workers making the County more electricity use efficient and renewable electricity self-sufficient will be local, much of the money they earn will be spent locally, helping everyone’s bottom line.


Assuming an economic multiplier benefit of two, a renewable electricity self-sufficient San Diego County would add around $3 billion of economic activity to the County’s economy each year. This is assuming that electricity is 10 cents per kWh. If the cost of electricity on the Western States Electricity Grid Market is more than 10 cents per kWh, the positive-cash-flow and economic multiplier benefit of becoming renewable electricity self-sufficient in San Diego County will grow accordingly.


+ That local efficiency and PV installations do not require new power lines or existing power line enhancement. The electricity produced with PV on roofs and over parking lots is already grid connected. Excess electricity produced during peak PV output can be sold or traded for electricity through out the Western States Electricity Grid for times when local PV panels are not producing sufficient electricity to meet the county’s electricity demand.


+ Eliminating the County’s contribution to pollution, general life-support damage and to climate change related to its dependence on producing electricity using fossil and nuclear fuels. It also eliminates the life-support damage connected to producing and delivering remotely produced renewably generated electricity to urban areas.


+ Eliminating price shocks related to the rising cost of electricity; made with price uncertain non-renewable energy resources. Unlike fossil and nuclear fuels, renewable energy resources are free and even delivered free. We are still becoming more cost- effective at becoming more electricity use efficient and making and installing PV panels over roofs and parking lots.


+ Increasing local business and employment. Becoming renewable electricity self-sufficient in San Diego County will create over 400,000 job-years of direct and indirect employment.


+ Changing ratepayers into utility company owners. As owners, ratepayers can meet all their electricity needs. If they produce more than they need, they can sell excess production into the Western States Grid.


+ Fostering the potential for the cost of increasing electricity use efficiency and renewably generated electricity to become less expensive. The manufacture and installation of electricity use efficiency measures and renewable energy collection and conversion to electricity devices is still becoming less expensive and the energy to power them is free and even delivered free.


+ Serving as a free-market example of how communities, in general, can save money and the environment by becoming renewable electricity self-sufficient. With some modifications, this investment strategy can be used by many communities to become completely renewable energy, water and food self-sufficient.


+ Becoming more electricity use efficient and installing PV panels on roofs and over parking lots adds zero heat to the county’s incident solar load. When electricity produced in the desert is used locally, it will add heat from the desert to the county’s incident solar load. It’s a small addition but now is not the time we need more heat.


For details on the free-market plan (zero subsidies needed) to make San Diego County renewable electricity self-sufficient, go to and click on “Green Papers.”


Jim Bell is an internationally recognized expert on sustainable development. He currently serves as Director of the Ecological Life Systems Institute and the San Diego Center for Appropriate Technology, and as representative of the Sierra Club on the City of San Diego’s Regional Advisory Energy Committee.


The opinions expressed in this editorial reflect the views of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine.  To submit an editorial for consideration, contact

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