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Small-scale renewables plan clashes with big energy

  Solar panels blanket the top of the esplanade at Moscone Center in San Francisco. (Credit: Penni Gladstone/The Chronicle.)

Solar panels blanket the rooftop of the Moscone Center in San Francisco. (Credit: Penni Gladstone/The Chronicle.)

The San Francisco Chronicle published an interesting viewpoint held by Bill Powers, California engineer and energy consultant. Powers argues that instead of focusing on large-scale solar and wind farms, the U.S. needs to turn to small-scale, local renewable harvesting, i.e., cover every available surface with solar panels, put turbines on rooftops and ditch the sprawling energy farms that will blanket the landscape and require transmission from a distance.

His view is that it would be better to get energy from hundreds of smaller facilities close to home than a giant one far away. It’s an idea that could upend the traditional way of supplying electricity and weaken the control of utility companies, which supporters of the idea consider a plus.

However, most energy experts are skeptical, at best. It simply won’t work, they say. The hunger for energy is too gross, and small-scale can’t keep our bellies fed.

“We’re going to see large-scale, grid-connected power for a long, long time,” says Jonathan Marshall, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Carl Zichella, regional director for the Sierra Club in California, has been deeply involved in a state process to plan for new power lines linked to wind farms and solar plants. He wants as much small-scale generation – often called “distributed generation” – as possible. But that alone won’t meet the state’s demand for renewable power, he said.

“We need to do it all,” Zichella said. “It’s quite possible we can get more distributed generation than we thought, and if we get enough, we can build fewer big plants. But I haven’t seen any studies I think are credible that say we won’t need any.”