For a community that defines itself by its beautiful coastline and environmental stewardship, the Refugio oil spill not only closed our beaches and caused over $250 million in cleanup and damage claims, it also caused an identity crisis as we wrestle with the role of fossil fuels in our lives. While it is imperative, of course, that each of us make changes in our own behavior, it has become increasingly clear that what really needs to change is our energy system.
If there are any silver linings in these all-too-frequent industrial energy accidents, it’s that — after 100 years of fossil fuels — a growing number of people are calling for an energy revolution. And we need that chorus, reimagining a world built on more renewable energy such as wind, wave, and solar power.
But, with full respect to visionaries like Elon Musk who claim that “solar energy is the Future,” I want to make the case that we’re already living that future. Solar energy is the Present, the energy revolution is already in motion, and the Central Coast is greatly benefiting from it.
In fact, within the next month or so, the tri-county region will hit a monumental milestone: we will have installed one gigawatt of solar power. That’s one billion watts — enough electricity to power more than a quarter million homes.
The vast majority of this solar came online in the last five years. That’s how fast and how powerful this revolution has been.
About 80 percent of that one gigawatt (or 800 megawatts) is from two solar farms in the Carrizo Plain. Those two solar farms created over 1,100 construction jobs — most of them high-paying, skilled union jobs. The projects also will infuse more than $730 million into the local economy, including almost $20 million in tax revenues. In each case, the Community Environmental Council (CEC) first brought together local advocacy groups to ensure that these utility-scale solar farms were developed with strong environmental conditions, and then CEC built public support for them. Within the next year, we hope to see another economic boost as construction begins on a third solar farm in the Cuyama Valley.
When we hit that one gigawatt next month — most likely around June 30 — about 20 percent of it (or 200 megawatts) will be from rooftop and ground-mounted solar. Almost 24,000 homes in the tri-county region have installed solar, as have many large, notable commercial buildings. Collectively these panels are saving local residents and businesses tens of millions of dollars in electricity costs. CEC directly helped install a portion of that rooftop solar through our Solarize program, in which we matched homeowners with peer-vetted solar installers offering a reduced group purchase price. We also helped several larger scale solar projects navigate issues with financing, permitting, and political support, including the one megawatt array near the Santa Barbara County election office.
So, we’re in the realm now where we can scrap the phrase “alternative energy” — solar is clearly an entrenched, competitive, everyday reality for tens of thousands of people in the tri-counties and is bringing significant economic benefit. It is also providing a real and measurable impact in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. A conservative calculation is that the amount of solar installed today in the tri-counties takes the equivalent of 150,000 cars off the road each year.
The question now isn’t “how do we get renewable energy in our region?” but “how do we get more?”
One of the most effective tools we have is something called Community Choice Energy, by which we can determine, as a region, where we want our electricity to come from. While we would continue to use the utility lines to deliver electricity, we could collectively decide that we want to give all tri-county customers the option to have 50 percent — or 100 percent — of their electricity come from locally generated, clean energy sources.
Not only does this mechanism give us the power — literally — to chart our own energy future, but it could also be a huge boon to the regional economy. Instead of your monthly utility bill payments going to support far-away utility shareholders, these dollars would stay in the community, where they could be invested in small and large solar installations on schools, businesses, government buildings, farms, grocery stores, water treatment plants, hospitals, fire stations, community centers … you name it.
We could also prioritize the development of local energy storage to match the supply of energy to when we need it most (think walls of giant batteries that store electricity generated from solar panels). This would, in turn, provide decades of cost savings and predictable, stable energy costs to those who provide our community services.
A year ago, as we observed the cleanup of the oil-soaked Refugio State Beach, CEC pledged to jump-start the call for Community Choice Energy, putting in the first dollars of what would become a tri-county study into this tool. That study is due out this fall.
We are now calling on the County of Santa Barbara to set aside funding in the 2016-17 budget cycle to move forward in developing a Community Choice Energy program, following the lead of 80 other communities throughout the state who are exploring a similar option. While county budget hearings may be about as unglamorous of a process as it gets, this is where community vision gets implemented, and the public’s voice is needed. You can sign on to CEC’s support for Community Choice Energy at SBCEnergyChoice.org.
The market is speaking: The age of fossil fuels is ending, and the solar era is here. Our tri-county region is benefiting more and more every day from renewable energy and will continue to do so. We have an opportunity now to turbo-boost that process and bring on the next gigawatt of solar.
Sigrid Wright is CEO/executive director of the Community Environmental Council.