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site last updated: 6/26/2010

C a l i f o r n i a   P H O T O N

Who Stands to Benefit

California Proposition 7 as Inviting Monopoly

Proposition 7 contains language that hypes a particular technology for solar energy production, and one that requires the appropriation of large tracks of desert land:

Many people are familiar with the solar power that comes from panels that can be placed on rooftops, but there is dramatic new technology that allows solar energy to be generated from concentrations of solar mirrors in the desert. These mirrors are so efficient that a large square array, eleven miles on a side, may be able to generate enough electricity to meet all of California's needs and at a lower cost than we are paying today. The desert could lead us to energy independence.
Proposition 7, SEC. 2

This passage reads like an advertisment for a particular type of solar power, and it's misleading. Solar thermal plants using reflectors are not new, nor are they necessarily more efficient than rooftop panels. The newest generation of photovoltaics have demonstrated sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiencies of 40 percent -- similar to that of the most efficient industrial solar plants -- and a raft of start-up companies are preparing CPV systems that will essentially double the efficiency of the rooftop solar panel.

(Furthermore, simple calculations show that the Proposition's estimate of land use requirements are far too low. Rather than 121 square miles of land, the project would likely use at least 700 square miles, not counting the demands of the new power lines.)

The difference between the distributed approach to energy independence and that of Proposition 7, is that the distributed solution does not require the appropriation of large tracts of desert wilderness, does not demand the construction of huge new power lines, and does not grant sweeping new powers to a state bureaucracy that has not always acted in the best interests of California. All that's needed to boost California's distributed solar economy into hyper-drive is to level the playing field, by requiring the utililites buy back excess energy from the micro-power generators, as did the original version of Assembly Bill 1920 -- motivating millions more home-owners and small businesses to install solar panels.

A number of provisions of Proposition 7 would effectively limit participation in its renewable energy mandate to a few giant players. One such provision is the equating of "solar and clean energy" with facilities "generating 30 megawatts or more" of power. Another is the requirement that utilities enter into 20-year contracts with energy providers.

(4) In soliciting and procuring eligible renewable energy resources, each electrical corporation retail seller shall offer contracts of no less than 10 20 years in duration, unless the commission approves of a contract of shorter duration.
Proposition 7, SEC. 9

Guessing on the Players

It seems likely that Proposition 7, if passed, would result in a few large well-connected companies receiving huge contracts for developing the measure's "solar and clean energy" faciliites. The fact that several companies specializing in utility-scale solar oppose the measure -- such as Bright Source Energy, Solel Inc., and GreenVolts -- suggests that the the contracts will go to only a very select group of players -- perhaps companies that have alreadly landed big infrastructure contracts, such as URS Corp and Sterling Energy Systems.

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