Sun Stroke: SoCal Edison and the Battle Over Solar Power

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

The building doesn't announce itself. It is a nondescript federal facility on Bonita Avenue in San Dimas, a short distance east of that community's Old-West downtown; even if you spotted its modest, tree-obscured façade while driving by, you still might not register its presence. It's hidden in plain sight.

The San Dimas Technology and Development Center (SDTDC) is not to be missed, however, for this branch of the U.S. Forest Service's Office of Engineering is in the middle of a red-hot debate that may determine whether Southern California will ever be able to take full advantage of solar power to sustain life in this brightly lit corner of the nation.

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At issue is the fixed-axis PV system that the land-management agency constructed with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars on its 18-acre site. Completed in February 2011, the installation is designed to produce 302 kW, which, according to REC Solar, the bid-winning contractor, will generate "enough power to provide for the majority of the electrical needs of the facility." More intriguingly, the construction budget "allowed for additional power to be produced and is purchased by the utility to help defray the cost of other SDTDC utilities, such as natural gas and water."

From the Forest Service's point of view this is a win-win situation. The project is a reflection of the agency's century-plus commitment to scientific innovation and conservation leadership. As part of that larger legacy, a solar-powered SDTDC would fulfill one the principles of the site's name - a place where technologies are dreamed up, tested and modeled. Indeed, the center's modeling function always has had a social component to it and is an integral part of its 67-year-old mission.

The San Dimas Technology and Development Center | Photo: Char Miller

Founded in 1945 as the Arcadia Fire Equipment Development Center (it moved to San Dimas 20 years later), its researchers and technicians initially were charged with developing new tools and techniques for fighting fire across the west, but especially in the dense urban-wildland interface of this oft-fiery region; over the years they have tested fire retardants, and evaluated the effectiveness of air tankers and helicopters (the latter of which an early pamphlet dubs "flying pickups") in fire suppression. An unstated urgency to this aspect of the center's work came from the fact that the backdrop to their north-facing offices, laboratories and workshops is the San Gabriel Mountains, as dangerously flammable as any in the United States. Then, as now, these federal employees' commitment has been to make this region more habitable - and safe.

Southern California Edison is not opposed to such virtues, but that has not stopped it from refusing to let the Forest Service bring its San Dimas solar array online; completed in February 2011, it still stands idle. The public utility's steadfast opposition to this project is not unique, we've learned from the Los Angeles Times. It has equally impeded operations at Death Valley National Park and the Santa Monica National Recreational Area along with more than 20 other National Park Service sites. SCE has interfered with another major solar project at the Forest Service facility at Mono Lake, and it also has stymied efforts on the part of the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Navy at some of their facilities.

Why SCE has been so oppositional is difficult to decipher because it has not publicly commented on its actions (or, properly, its inactions). When pressed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Julie Cart of the Times, who broke the story, SCE clammed up, "citing ongoing negotiations."

That there were discussions underway came as news to the relevant federal negotiators. Jack Williams, a just-retired NPS regional facilities manager, told Cart: "There's 24-plus systems in the Southern California Edison area that have been installed in the last three years that we have not been able to negotiate an interconnection agreement on. We think we are close at times, but then nothing. We were successful with PG&E, but with Southern California Edison....They have been a bit more difficult."

Other institutions have run into the same problems, and their experiences may help explain SCE's silence and the motives that lie behind it.

Last February, for instance, Pomona College completed the construction and permitting for solar collectors on a pair of new dormitories; these new residence halls received LEED-Platinum certification - the first in the state - in part on the basis of their capacity to generate power captured from the sun. They have yet to fulfill this important function because SCE has blocked their launch. The appropriate paperwork, long-since submitted, is slowly, very slowly making its way through the utility's bureaucratic labyrinth. This extended delay, said one campus official who is close to the situation, appears to be a result of SCE's unwillingness to allow alternative energy to "bleed back into the grid."

This is not a simple case of SCE fearing that solar technology will help the college or any other entity reduce its electric bills, and thus its capacity to sell energy; Death Valley National Park, for one, may be able to lower its annual tab by an estimated $7,000 but that reduction won't break SCE's bank.

Its chief concern seems to lie in its loss of control - call it a monopoly - over the production of energy in its service area. As its website indicates, SCE has been bullish on the technology and its current output, bragging that it buys an estimated 65% of the U.S. solar-power generation; it has also invested heavily in the construction of major solar plants across the Mojave Desert. "In California, we are blessed with an abundant source of renewable fuel from the sun," declares Stuart Hemphill, senior vice president, Power Procurement. "We are encouraged by all of the initiatives and innovation taking place in the industry to take advantage of this plentiful source of power. Our productive partnerships with customers and developers will help assure Edison continues to lead the way in renewable power."

This last sentence and its selective determination of who the company acknowledges it is in partnership with - customers who pony up for its energy; and developers who produce it - is revelatory. SCE has no interest in paying federal agencies or any other self-producer for the extra kilowatts they generate as it is required to do by state law. To avoid this financial obligation, it has stalled or ignored hook-up requests.

The SDTDC in 1966 | Photo: Courtesy US Forest Service and Forest History Society
So when REC Solar touted the fact that the Forest Service's San Dimas solar panels had the built-in capacity to produce enough additional power to offset costs associated with the center's consumption of other natural resources, its declaration was akin to waving a red cape in front of an angry bull.

This time, however, el toro itself may have been gored.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), after reading the LA Times' coverage, wrote directly to SCE President Ronald Litzinger, urging the public utility to get back to the negotiating table. "It is unacceptable that renewable energy projects that could save taxpayers money have been allowed to sit idle for so long," unacceptable that it has stonewalled at the same time that these same federal agencies were able successfully to negotiate with another major California utility, PG&E. "I urge you to review these successful agreements and use them as a model to finalize pending interconnection agreements with the federal government so that all parties can fully realize the benefits of renewable energy," a request that came with this politely pointed demand: "Please contact me as soon as possible...to tell me your plan for resolving this unfortunate delay."

Never doubt the power of a well-worded letter from a powerful politico, or the capacity of Washington to flex its muscles in regional affairs: Within one week, SCE and the National Park Service had returned to the negotiating table; and the once-recalcitrant utility also announced that it was close to signing agreements with the Veterans Administration and Forest Service; once inked, these contracts will allow the federal agencies to begin to meet their congressional mandates to reduce their carbon footprint.

The local implications are significant, too. As soon as the San Dimas Technology and Development Center gets the green light to flick the switch on its solar operations, thus serving as a quiet but effective role model for its neighbors, we'll be one step closer to living as we ought in the sun-drenched Southland.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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