What is your opinion on larger scale renewable energy farms used by utilities. In renewable energy, is it all good?
The distinction between utility-scale and distributed generation renewable energy projects is an important one. Impacts on the environment and community can vary wildly. Take solar photovoltaics for example. A distributed generation project is a relatively small solar array usually on rooftops or nearby ground space. The power is used where it is produced, for the most part, though it is still connected to the grid (unless it’s a totally off-grid system). Typical sizes in Summit County are 5 kW for residential systems and 25 kW for commercial systems.
Utility-scale solar generation size ranges from 10MW to over 200 MW. The 30 MW solar array Xcel Energy has built in the San Luis Valley in Colorado produces enough power for about 6,000 homes. There is no doubt that the increase in utility-scale renewable energy production produces far fewer carbon emissions than coal-fired power plants and natural gas plants. Xcel Energy is scheduled to produce a total of 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and most of this will be utility-scale generation. Three percent of the total power generation in Colorado is required to be distributed generation.
Why do we care? It is not as simple as saying renewables are good and coal is bad. For starters, utility scale projects take up large portions of land (320 acres for the San Luis Valley project), disrupting natural habitat and necessitating the needs for transmission lines in order to get the power to the consumer. Roof-top solar, on the other hand, disturbs no land or habitat.
Distributed solar generation can be community owned. One of our favorite things about our Summit County Solar Gardens is that local residents will own the panels, though they are located on town of Breckenridge land. Ownership is a very cool factor in distributed generation projects, especially when capital costs can be defrayed through financing.
With distributed generation, there is no need for large transmission lines. Approximately 7 percent of power is lost in average transmission whereas locally generated power loses much less.
Perhaps the most important point to make about distributed generation and especially rooftop generation is that in case of (the inevitable) zombie attack, energy independence will come in handy.
On the negative side, distributed generation, because it rarely takes advantage of bulk purchase or install, is more expensive. But even these hurdles are being overcome by Solarize campaigns that take advantage of group purchasing (see the Solarize Wellington campaign at tinyurl.com/blru5wy).
In short, we love distributed generation projects that are clean, community owned, increase our energy independence and give us power over our own power sources!
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.