Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Giffords' congressional solar hearing looks at future

Rep. Giffords takes a spin in a solar car

RELATED NEWS, 3/27: CA plans big smart rooftop solar project.

TUCSON -- As a solar energy producer, I welcome any positive attention to clean energy. At a valuable hearing recently, US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) called solar energy a practical solution to some of the most significant challenges America will confront in the 21st century.

“The time for solar is now,” Giffords told an audience of 130 attending a bipartisan congressional field hearing on solar energy last week. “Technologies are improving, costs are falling and the reasons to adopt it are increasingly compelling.”

Giffords, who presided over the hearing in her capacity as vice-chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, compared the solar energy industry of today to the early years of space program because of the many positive ways it can shape our future.

“In the coming months and years, we will face critical decisions on how to address climate change, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and boost our economic competitiveness,” the Tucson lawmaker said. “The beauty of solar power is that it offers an elegant solution to all three of these pressing concerns.”

The goal of the two-hour hearing was to explore the potential of making solar energy a significant source of electric generating capacity in the United States. Giffords and five other members of Congress heard testimony from six expert witnesses who spoke about solar technologies, energy transmission and regulatory issues, and the role of government and the private sector in the development of utility-scale solar power.

Providing testimony were Kate Maracas of Abengoa Solar; Mark Mehos of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Barbara Lockwood of APS; Tom Hansen of Tucson Electric Power; Valerie Rauluk of Venture Catalyst Inc.; and Joe Kastner of MMA Renewable Ventures.

Giffords, a member of the House Science and Technology Committee, was joined on the panel by U.S. Reps. Harry Mitchell of Arizona, Dan Lipinski of Illinois, Jim Matheson of Utah, and Ralph Hall of Texas. U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, participated by telephone.

I favor focus on utilities supporting customers using PV technology on rooftops in cities, where power is used, as the smartest step toward increasing solar power production now.

One concern with big utility-scale solar power plants is they need a lot of land, so proper siting to avoid harm to valuable open space and wildlife habitat is critical. Big utility-scale solar plants will also increase utilities' desire to build more big power lines across the landscape, and increase reliance on the inefficient and vulnerable power grid. Some big utility models also would use a lot of water, unlike PV panels.

Ultimately, to maximize efficient wise use of solar energy, we'll need a combination of millions of rooftop PV systems, and well sited utility-scale plants near cities. Old cotton or alfalfa growing lands are generally smart sites for solar plants, for example.

Without a doubt, utilities are important to going solar, but they need to cooperate more and let go of their desire to fully control all power production and sales.

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