Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Per Capita Davis: Impractical and uneconomical?


Driving down Interstate 5,  motorists are accompanied by a view of the California Aqueduct, part of the several hundred-mile network of canals that make up the Central Valley Project that plumbs the state of California. I’ve always wondered if these canals would be a potential location for solar panels — modules that span the canal, offering evaporation-reducing shade as well as generating electricity.

There are reasons why this might be considered either “impractical” or “uneconomical,” but those two words seem to come up almost every time a discussion about how space that is currently unused might be put to constructive use as a location for producing electricity from the sun.

So it was interesting to read an article from India about the Canal Solar Power Project to install solar panels over the canals in the state of Gujarat. Granted, the project is just getting underway and it’s a long journey from start to finish, but the goals of the project are to produce 2,200 megawatts of electricity, about equal to the capacity of the two nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon, and reduce evaporation (if my math is correct) of billions of gallons of water that can be used for agriculture.

What is “impractical” or “uneconomical” here apparently works OK in India.

Of course, if you are driving down I-5 and keeping your eyes on the road, you might not notice the canals and instead wonder why all that land in the right-of-way isn’t sprouting solar panels. Once again the words “impractical” or “uneconomical” accompany the answer. Also once again, someone is doing this, and this time closer by.

The Oregon Department of Transportation recently installed an 8,000-square-foot solar array to produce the electricity needed to light an interchange. There are three coincidences here. One, we’re talking about Oregon, where it rains half the time and is cloudy the other half. Second, the installation is at the intersection of Interstates 5 and 205. Third, the utility that receives the electricity is Portland General Electric, aka PGE.

A recent proposal to use a Sacramento area roadside as a site for solar arrays was scrapped: “impractical” and “uneconomical.”

Continuing down I-5 to Los Angeles might take us by Green Dot Animo Leadership High School in Inglewood. This public high school is also collecting photons and creating electricity. While lots of schools (including several in Davis, Woodland and West Sacramento) have erected photovoltaic arrays on rooftops or parking lots, this school building is unique in that almost an entire side of the seven-story building is covered with 650 solar panels. Some people find rooftop solar unattractive; this 50,000-square-foot building serving 500 students integrates it into the structure itself and generates 75 percent of its electricity needs.

OK, enough about I-5. Heading east from Los Angeles toward Riverside and then traveling south on I-215, we stop for a bite to eat in the city of Perris, not to be mistaken for its phonetically similar sister city in France and certainly not usually mentioned in the same sentence with the People’s Republic of (pick one) Davis, Berkeley or San Francisco.

A small agricultural community, Perris would be easy to drive right through, but then you’d miss some amazing stuff. The city put its own house in order by contracting for energy efficiency in its own facilities, and then it went out and built solar-topped car ports at the library (66 spaces), the Senior Center (26 spaces), the fire station (14 spaces) and the corporation yard (30 spaces). Perris also erected six solar-powered bus shelters that provide electricity to nearby traffic lights, and come with battery storage to contribute electricity at night.

The capper came when the city worked to put solar arrays on the Whirlpool Corp.’s warehouse, which, as it happens, is quite expansive, covering about 40 acres. For all of this, and more, it received recognition from the League of California Cities, with the mayor indicating that Perris is a leader in the effort to reduce greenhouse gases.

Who knew?

I know that I’m far short of being an expert in the technology, law, regulation or economics of solar energy but it does seem to me that those who are, and those who make the rules, might take a hard look at exactly what makes us determine that some projects are “impractical” and/or “uneconomical” and figure out how to do what others are doing — using large spaces such as canals, highways and rooftops to produce electricity.

If the problem of climate change is big, and it seems pretty well certain that it is, then dithering with the status quo probably won’t get us where we need to be to avoid adverse impacts.

If India can cover its canals with solar, and Oregon can site arrays on freeway interchanges, and the little town of Perris can erect solar car ports and install solar on a 40-acre roof, it would seem we could determine that what is apparently “impractical” or “uneconomical” is not “impossible.”

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis and somewhat of a broken record lately on the subject of siting solar systems. This column is published on the first and third Mondays of each month. Send comments to

John Mott-Smith


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