In late July, I joined about 250 clean energy stakeholders on the UCLA campus to discuss Governor Jerry Brown’s goal to install 12,000 megawatts (MW) of clean and locally-sited renewable energy projects in California by 2020. This concept – installing more green energy in areas that will create new green jobs close to where people live (and use electricity) – is part of Governor Brown’s Clean Energy Jobs Plan.
As you know, the more clean, renewable energy we use, the less fossil-fueled and nuclear power we use. Using clean energy reduces air pollution and creates a larger pool of clean, safe, and never-ending electricity for our communities. Not a bad deal. But why is the governor focused on local renewable energy projects, which are sometimes referred to as “distributed generation” or DG? What is DG anyway?
Renewable distributed generation (DG)
Renewable DG facilities are renewable energy power plants, but on a much smaller scale than the large wind or solar projects you may be familiar with. There is no hard rule for the size of a DG facility, but most have less than 20 MW of generation capacity. For some context, 1 MW of solar photovoltaic (solar PV) generation capacity is enough power for roughly 750 homes in California. Since we are talking about small-scale generation, the DG projects are most likely to be solar PV, small wind, biomass, or biogas facilities.
Renewable DG facilities are likely to deliver electricity directly into the distribution (or more local) portion of our electricity grid, which takes power to homes and businesses, rather than connecting to remote transmission lines and sending power long distances.
So why would we want to invest in renewable DG when we could be building large-scale solar, wind and geothermal plants that are orders of magnitude larger than most DG facilities?
Benefits of renewable DG
Well, first of all, it’s not an either/or investment question. If we are going to dramatically shift away from fossil-fueled electricity and meet our AB 32 GHG emission reduction requirements, we need to build large AND small renewable energy projects. We should not automatically limit ourselves to what size or type of clean energy we build. But renewable DG projects do have some benefits:
- Location, location, location!: We don’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out where we can build DG. There are thousands of rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, and retired farmlands that could host renewable DG installations. The Luskin Center at UCLA recently released a report that estimates in the City of Los Angeles alone, there is over 5 GW of solar PV DG potential!
- Smaller footprint: Since these projects are less likely to be built on virgin land, they will likely have fewer environmental impacts to mitigate, which means they can be build faster than some larger projects.
- Energy where you need it most: When given the right incentives to install generation where the electricity will be consumed, renewable DG facilities will reduce the need to transmit power over transmission lines, which means we can spend less money building new lines or upgrading existing ones.
- Jobs!: There are thousands of Californians ready to get back to work. Installing and maintaining renewable DG facilities creates new green jobs where people live. A report recently released by Environment California estimates that there are at least 298 green job training programs in California, offered by 130 institutions.
California leads the way
The challenges of installing 12,000 MW of renewable DG by 2020 should not be understated. Building a more robust market for these technologies will require great attention to how these projects are connected to the grid, and how much they will cost compared to other clean energy technologies. But the goal is part of a visionary, long-term clean energy path that California continues to chart for the rest of the country. Heck, if Germany can install 20,000 MW of DG in a country that’s hardly known for its sunshine, then California can do it too.
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