COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

EPIC: a central jewel in San Diego’s environmental crown

Scott Anders is the director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center (EPIC) at the University Of San Diego School Of Law and the person responsible for development of both research and academic programs. Most recently EPIC held its fourth annual Climate and Energy Law Symposium on Nov. 9, with a focus on distributed energy entitled “Law in a Distributed Energy Future.”

Mr. Anders’ guidance of EPIC has given extraordinary life to a number of genuinely fascinating and revealing perspectives on the topic of energy. The symposium offered an excellent series of presentations, commensurate with the high standards we have learned to expect from EPIC programs.

Carla Peterman, commissioner of the California Energy Commission, and Ken Alex, senior advisor to California Gov. Jerry Brown and director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research each provided interesting and thought provoking keynote presentations, which when added to the extraordinarily sophisticated talks given by no less than 16 other speakers, genuinely commanded the attention of the audience.

No “walk in the park,” once-over-lightly affair, this! Indeed, the range and complexity of topical points, legal doctrines and nuanced analysis was genuinely mind-boggling, as each speaker moved quickly across a doctrinal landscape as foreign to many people as the terrain of Mars. Even those well acquainted with the topics were forced to bring their “A-game” with rapt attention tightly glued to the subject at hand.

The symposium examined the emerging law and policy approaches intended to encourage “distributed energy,” a term which was not uniformly defined, but seems indirectly focused on small scale wind generators but more primarily on solar photovoltaic (PV) panels deployed in the residential and modest commercial context, not large scale solar PV projects extending over tens or hundreds of acres.

Smaller deployments of solar panels, including at the neighborhood or community level, were discussed at length, along with the federal, state and local legal and policy “innovations” needed to promote or “usher in a distributed energy future” subject to that vision. My concern: in the final analysis, with distributed generation there is too much costly administrative overhead and O&M for too little power generation.

For the sake of time, some of the presentations were foreshortened, and unfortunately including, USD Environmental Law Professor Lesley McAllister’s discussion of Germany’s experience as it deployed substantial amounts of small and larger scale solar PV in order to produce electricity. (Note: that effort initially buoyed German solar PV manufacturing.)

An extended exposition discussing Germany’s true saga would have been welcome, as it is often cited as an exemplary success story with respect to rapidly and broadly deploying solar PV in a meaningful way across a large geographical area with reasonably good results. Germany’s efforts can provide the United States many lessons, including cautionary points which are highly technical but important.

For example, several speakers at the EPIC conference made passing reference to the importance of deploying better inverter technology, something available, but at higher cost. SDG&E’s Tom Brill distinguished between more expensive “smart inverters” which produce less electricity from solar PV but in a way that protects the integrity of our shared distribution grid, and the less costly “dumb inverters” which allow passage onto the grid of greater amounts of electricity but of an inferior and variable quality, thus presenting the potential for harming the grid, and with it, challenges for the long term success of small scale, widely distributed solar PV installations.

Moreover, to succeed, the laws associated with using distributed generation must wisely follow the laws of physics when it comes to the electrical grid, as persistent physics will eventually win wherever a conflict arises. Thus it was that the Germans were forced to come to grips with the need for new technology to protect their grid after relatively modest amounts of solar PV deployment introduced issues of voltage instability which threaten the grid and consumers’ equipment. In response, effective January 1, 2012, the German Low Voltage Grid Code (VDE-AR-N-4105) requires upgrading older inverters and installing compliant inverters going forward to protect their electric grid, a necessary step with a considerable price tag.

In speaking to other attendees afterward, two key points emerged. First, we need to rapidly do far more about global warming by massively reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power production and transportation, and second, the legal and logistical barriers to deploying large and small scale wind and solar energy systems are far too high and complex, creating vast uncertainty.

With respect to the latter point, the totality of the conference made abundantly clear that the morass of rules, laws, doctrines, parties, governments, customs, prejudices and past practices almost certainly condemn us all to a painfully slow transitional process, one which will likely run out the clock, exhausting the little time we have left to respond to the emergency which is global warming.

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