Clean energy landslide rumbling in D.C., Austin, and Hill Country Hyatt

DOE's Tom Kimbis: watching solar prices tumble and helping cities cash in.

Greg Harman

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For all my lambasting of the bottled water industry (and those hyper-toned Cult of Fitness members lugging cases of the stuff through our grocery store lanes), I must confess: There was a time I didn't glug straight out of the tap as I advocate today. During a narrow window of time, I filled five-gallon jugs at those quarter-sucking DIY reverse-osmosis filling stations.

Where was I? Our own Permian Basin â?? otherwise known as the oil patch of West Texas. The reason? Thousands upon thousands of potentially cross-contaminating boreholes (a few of which were actually capped), remnants of radioactive oilfield tracers, petro-waste injection wells, heavy salt content, and my strangely distrustful mind.

When we would load up our jugs, my wife at the time would quip that we were “going to the well â?¦ just like in Bible times.” And we'd laugh. And then we'd plop in our slugs of nickel-plated copper.

In this era of “climate porn” and those resulting millions of sweaty, itching palms waiting for weather-induced civil breakdown, it's hard not to think in biblical language sometimes. The near penitential rush to embrace virtually pollution-free power sources like solar that has broken out at the national and state level, is certainly no exception.

From Austin, we hear from the state Sierra Club that lawmakers at the Energy Efficiency & Renewables subcommittee for the House Energy Resources and Environmental Regulations will be sorting through a stack of proposed green legislation today.

Energy Efficiency and Renewables Subcommittee? Texas has such a thing? Not only that, but cast your eyes over this impressive roster of earth-loving legislation. It's not the energy revolution en toto, but it's a principled volley.

The legislative initiatives are said to include:

  • Requiring utilities to get 1% of their peak demand for electricity through energy efficiency by 2015 and 2% by 2020
  • 2,000 megawatts of on-site renewables by 2020 -- that is solar on roofs or geothermal in the ground
  • A goal of 3,000 megawatts for renewables other than large scale wind â?? that is solar and geothermal by 2020
  • Allowing innovative financing plans so cities can pay upfront costs of solar on roofs

Here in San Antonio, clean-energy and efficiency peeps, including bow-tied Bill Sinkin, Hisoner Hardberger, and desperately pro-solar mayoral candidate Diane Cibrian were mixing it up with U.S. Department of Energy officials at the Hyatt Hilton Reality Escape Spa on the back side of SeaWorld. The “official” recognition (photo op) of San Antonio's inclusion in the department's Solar America Cities exclusive club comes months after news of our success first reached us.

But it was at this week-long conference that the practical benefits started to sink in. There is nothing like the country's top experts and practitioners of city-wide solar programs making city-specific housecalls. (The $200,000 will be nice, too!)

I made use of a few minutes downtime (between a keynote by the director of the Solar Electric Power Association and a breakout session on “engaging your utility”) to speak with solar-policy alchemist Tom Kimbis, director of market transformation for Solar America Cities, about where solar is today and where it may be a year from now.

Forgive us a little wind on the mic and my own inability to form concise opening questions:

Afterward, Julia Hamm (right) of the Solar Electric Power Association gave a great talk, I think, while I was busily tearing roasted veggies off my DOE-provided skewer (You had me at kabob). Go ahead, ask around. I was not the only zucchini-splattered consumer present.

I seem to recall something about PG&E and PSE&G, though I may have missed a few G's while picking my teeth. Oh, was that my voice recorder she was trying to advance the PowerPoint with? Sorry, Julia!

If tracking national solar stuff is your thing, get the latest news from the frontier by tuning into Hamm's keynote speech:

Unfortunately, there's a big, honkin' disconnect between San Antonio being honored as a “Solar America City” and a key reality on the ground.

Yes, we have the Pearl and pending infusion of 200 kilowatts of sunshine to look forward to. We have ideas about throwing photovoltaics up at the convention center or the airport. And there is a kickass green building program shining a light for area builders interested in keeping pace (or exceeding) new city guidelines that will â?? deep breath! â?? help convert our homes into energy consumers to energy producers.

CPS Energy officials have trumpeted their commitment to solar at every opportunity. (Granted, a promised hundred megawatts is nothing to sneeze at, whether it takes the shape of a single solar “farm” or is broken up between projects.) However, it's troubling that the investment that would possibly spark the market the fastest â?? fostering an emerging solar market with incentives for home- and business-owners â?? was allowed to expire this year before it ever truly got off the ground.

I can't help but think on that rate-hike hearing a year ago and recall how councilmember after councilmember insisted above and beyond everything else that the utility was to pursue energy efficiency and renewables. I recall a lot of head-bobbing on the part of the CPS suits.

CPS told Tony at the Express, it was a money thing. That they'd kick the program back on as soon as the city dropped off a new bag of cash.

How is it that the city-owned utility (I love saying that, though I'm not sure what it means some days) can blame the council's withholding of 1.5-cents of the requested 5-cent rate increase last year for elimination of the efficiency and solar rebate programs that couldn't have totaled much more than a few million (at most) when they can skate ahead with another $60 million for nuclear-power "studies" completely untroubled?

Far more accomplished energy economists than myself have pointed out that this kind of investment in efficiency could actually displace our need for the nuke plants by the time those multi-billion-dollar suckers â?? speaking of biblical proportions â?? could ever come online.

I know I'm not the only one wondering.