As Obama talks, a Republican mayor plans world’s solar capital

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You didn’t have to go to far down the dial of the AM radio stations in the US on Tuesday in the US to gauge the reaction to Barack Obama’s climate action plan. It seemed that Conservative and god-fearing folk everywhere were accusing him of messing with their minds, the science, the economy, and worst of all, with their constitutional rights.

Well, not quite everyone.

In his office in Lancaster, a city of 158,000 people located on California’s high desert plains north-east of Los Angeles, Mayor Rex Parris was showing his approval, but noting that there was not a lot Obama could actually do on the ground.

“I don’t get to just talk. I’m the mayor of a city,” Parriss tells RenewEconomy just as Obama sits down after making his speech at Georgetown University.

Earlier this year, Parris made headlines when he used his right to set building codes to become the first (there are now two) cities in California to mandate that solar be included in all new homes built in the city.

Parriss wants to go further – he wants to turn Lancaster into a “net zero” city in terms of energy emissions – which means it has to produce the equivalent of its own needs from renewables within its own boundaries (not including the massive solar farms at its doorstop).

“This really is a problem that has to be solved in neighbourhoods. That’s where the energy is consumed, in buildings, and housing. Obama doesn’t write building codes. I do.”

And here comes the recognizably Republican aspect of Parris’ politics. He says governments are the biggest impedement to innovation, and they should get out of the way. That’s why in Lancaster, it takes just 10 minutes to get a permit to put solar on the roof.  Elsewhere, it takes months.

As it turns out, Lancaster – located on the dead flat plains of the Antelope Valley, at an elevation of 800m and with 360 days of cloud free sun a year – is home to some of the best solar resources in the US. And Parriss wants to make Lancaster the solar capital of the world.

Already, it is home of the some of the world’s biggest large scale solar developments. Some 1GW of renewable energy capacity (mostly solar PV but also concentrated some solar thermal and win) has and is being constructed on the plains that surround Lancaster. Nearby is the Edwards Air Force Base (famous for speed records of all types), a NASA space research centre, and Richard Branson’s  Virgin space program.

In Lancaster, rooftop solar is already everywhere. The arrays on the car park mean that City Hall draws just 3 per cent of its needs from the grid, and solar arrays at local schools means their electricity costs are locked in at 9c/kWh for 15 years.

One of his first acts was to bring America’s largest home builder KB Homes together with Chinese giant BYD (partly owned by Warren Buffett) to create an “affordable home” with off grid power.

“They said they couldn’t do it. I said ‘try’.”

In the end,  they did – building three homes (with the help of the mayor bending a few rules) with rooftop solar and battery storage that can look after own needs. Parris says it cost only $20,000 – for a new home that will never have an electricity bill. KB Homes now offers solar as an option on all its homes. Parriss says most people are not ready to leave the grid just yet, because they are suspicious of living without it. But it may come.

And solar is not just everywhere inside the city, there are huge expanses of it on the vast plains outside the city limits. As Mayor Parris notes, he has 20,000 hectares of disturbed land that was once used for alph-alpha farming before the water table was depleted. So there are no environmental impediements. Now these former farms are filling fast.

First Solar’s 250MW Antelope Valley Solar Ranch is nearing completion (RenewEconomy visited their on Monday and will report on that soon); SunPower has just begun construction of a 579MW solar PV power plant (it will be the world’s biggest when completed) just nearby, and numerous smaller projects  have been built. Another 20 or so are awaiting permitting. In the hills to the north –east of the city, the world’s largest wind farm is being built.

Parris sees this as a huge opportunity, and is agitating for a major transmission line that could export some 2GW of capacity. This is partly to get over what he calls the intransigence of the local utility.

“Solar is cost effective, even without subsidies. What is needed is an understanding that they have to switch business models. They say we want alternative energy, but they can’t. They say they like solar, but they don’t really want to put it in.” He says they even oppose his moves to introduce LED lighting in the city.

He blames the intransigence of the utilities on the “pattern recognition” of their senior executives, who are not confronted with a new business challenge, how to make money from encouraging people to use less energy rather than more.

“If you spent 30 years of your life figuring out way to get people to use more power, so your company makes more money, and someone comes along and says we want you to come along and make money doing the exact opposite, I can see why they feel threatened. They don’t even know they’re objecting. It’s not just their business model that is under threat, it is their sense of significance.

Parris says similar polemics drive the partisan debate on climate change and energy. The polemics mean that once one side has said something is true, or good, the other side says it is not. And “confirmation bias” means that once something has been said publicly, it makes it difficult to change a position. (Think “axe the tax”). The situation was worsened by “fringe elements” – read the Tea Party – that were driven by oil interests. “I’m a lawyer and I’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars (for his clients) knowing how prime people in a court roomto think a certain way. Once you prime them, that’s the way they go.”

And Parris is genuinely concerned about the climate. “It may be too late,” he says.  “It is not a feel good moment. This will be what we pass on to our grandchildren. And in my case they are born, and they have names.”  

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  • Bob_Wallace

    A Republican acting like a true conservative. Conserving the planet.

    Unfortunately we have very few of them….

    • Bob Wallace

      Hello everyone, this is a different Bob Wallace (note the lack of a _)

      Couldn’t agree more with you on this,

      The term conservative should define a person that is risk-averse and wants to take measures to avoid threats of climate change. Unfortunately this isn’t the case and conservative in our modern society is more often synonymous with “greedy”, “bigoted”, “uptight”, “non-adaptive”, and “backwards”.

      But there is that rare but growing political group that ardently fights for both the constitutional limitation of the federal government as well as the preservation of the environment and full allowance of personal liberties. Obviously many more young people see themselves fitting into this group or the democratic group than the antiquity of the GOP.

  • MrMauricio

    California is so different to the rest of (Tea Party) America-forward thinking progressive and creative-even their conservatives! Is it any surprise its also the strongest economy in the States!As Gov Parris says-it may well be too late to keep a safe climate and sea level for our grand kids-and yes!!!They are here now-they will be around in 2050!!!What are we doing for them?
    In Australia we are going back to the Dark Ages listening to the siren calls of those who are amoral and would knowingly profit from something that threatens our children and grand children.We are willing to wreck the Barrier Reef to export more coal for example.We have”leaders” like Campbell Newman and Tony Abbott.God help us all!!

    • Bob_Wallace

      You folks in Australia need to do what we need to do here in the US.

      We both need to turn out young voters. They are the ones who are going to be paying the big price if we do too little, too late. This is their future being determined today.

      • Chris Fraser

        Yes, we do need to. Though happily most of them enrol to vote after their eighteenth birthday and voting is then compulsory. The US struggles to get the same interest.

    • Bob Wallace

      Be careful about generalizing “Tea Party”…. some of them are quite green too. It is a diverse group of individuals with the only real common view being an adherence to the constitutional limitation of the Federal Government. I think beyond that point there is a lot that different groups within the so-called party would disagree about.

      Tea Partiers in Georgia of all places recently rallied to push the state for improvement of PV system grid-interconnection considerations.

      The whole idea that there are only two political view-points in this country is silly and outdated.