Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

Circuit Breaker: How Solar Power Came to San Dimas

Smokey the Bear shows up at the dedication of the U.S. Forest Service's new solar array in San Dimas, CA. | Photo: Courtesy Nathan Judy, Forest Service

The morning broke clear, bright, and blue. Perfect Southland weather for Tuesday's dedication ceremony of an impressive solar array housed at the Forest Service's Technology and Development Center in San Dimas.

Such was the warmth of the day that Leslie Weldon, who as Deputy Chief for the National Forest System was on hand to celebrate the grand occasion, could not help reveling in her good fortune to have escaped what she described as "Maryland's drear," that cold, wet, gray blanket muffling winter life back east.

Resolving her Vitamin-D deficiency was not the only reason Weldon was so excited to be basking in the sun. Its rays, and the photons they convey to the Earth's surface, are what the 1,288 solar panels, ground mounted and spread out over 1.5 acres, are converting into electrons to power the Technology Center.

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Although there is nothing about this installation that is groundbreaking in terms of its technical processes, its ramifications nonetheless are considerable.

The project, funded in part through President Obama's recession-countering American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is the first "net-zero" facility within the U. S. Department of Agriculture. That means the site will produce and export as much energy every year as the Center consumes. Better still, as the excess power pulses back into the grid it will be credited to other Forest Service units in the region, including the brand new Angeles National Forests offices in Arcadia. What happens in San Dimas doesn't stay in San Dimas.

That's one reason why this relatively small powerplant is the wave of the future. At least in California.

Making that case was Michael Picker, Senior Adviser to Governor Jerry Brown on renewable-energy matters, who packed a lot into his brief remarks. He noted that the state has not built any major power-generating stations over the last 40 years or so, and that we have not needed to because rigorous state regulations have required energy efficiencies to be built into our homes, offices, and school, stores, restaurants, and hospitals.

One of the challenges now confronting the Golden State is whether we can develop a large enough portfolio of renewable energy sources to replace the aging, even antiquated fossil-fuel and nuclear generators. (An example of how fast this transition needs to occur is reflected in the current debate over what to do with the shuttered San Onofre nuclear-power facility).

Solar panels installed by REC Solar at a U.S. Forest Service building in San Dimas, CA | Photo: Courtesy REC Solar

Another and related obstacle is clearing away outdated public policies and utility regulations that inhibit the growth and development of sites like one in the San Dimas, which will return to the grid an estimated 200,000 kilowatts a year.

The current regulatory environment privileges a one-way grid, in which our local purveyor, Southern California Edison, produces electricity at a central power station, then sends it along transmission lines that step down the voltage so we can turn on the lights, power up a computer, or cook a meal.

We are in the midst of developing a two-way grid, Michael Picker pointed out, and San Dimas is an example of its great potential. More efficient, less costly, and with a smaller footprint, these distributive energy resources will be transformative. To realize their full possibilities, however, is not a matter of technology but of politics.

This particular solar array, for example, took a mere four months to build. It then took two years to come online. The agonizing delay was due to Southern California Edison's balking at the new, more decentralized form of power generation and the legal issues that it felt resulted from it.

The utility's pushback, as I wrote last February, held up more than 20 projects on federal properties and at private institutions (including my campus). When the LA Times cracked open the story, and Senator Barbara Boxer jumped into the fray, the gridlock broke; seven months later, the San Dimas facility went live.

That's part of the backstory, and is consistent with most tales we tell about social change: the media spotlights a problem we did not know was a problem, a now more-alert public and its responsive representatives flex their muscles, and this outside pressure forces recalcitrant insiders to change their behavior.

In this case, however, there was an unsung hero operating outside the limelight. Every speaker yesterday mentioned that this dedicatory event would not have occurred without the persistence of Renee Jewell, the Forest Service's Commercial Services Manager working out of its regional office in Vallejo, California. She may be located deep within a large bureaucracy but she's no petty clerk.

Jewell is credited with identifying the policy conundrum that blocked the San Dimas and other federal projects, and applauded for persistently prodding the various constituencies -- state and federal agencies, the Public Utilities Commission, and SoCal Edison -- to figure out a solution.

Her tenacity evokes another narrative about the source of human progress: the power of an individual, like the sun's energy, can light our way forward.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

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About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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