Megan Birney is responsible for renewable energy advocacy, education and community initiatives. She splits her time between providing information to residential and business owners who want to invest in renewable energy, and supporting responsible development of large and medium scale projects.
Written by Megan Birney on Wednesday, 19 December 2012.
The old saying goes that knowledge is power. For those who – like me – are interested in knowing more about their energy use, Southern California Edison (SCE) is now providing online electronic energy data that allows you to monitor your household's energy use, track monthly energy costs, and sign up for incentive programs to reduce energy use.
All of these programs are made possible by the SmartConnect digital meter that gives 24/7 access to your home's electricity information by the hour, day or month. I recently received notification in the mail of this new program and immediately went online to check it out. Here is what I found, and why I'm excited about having real-time data to help my household manage its energy use.
The first step is to either access your existing online account, or create one. To do this, you will need your 10 digit SCE account code (found in the upper right corner of your bill, above your address) and your zip code to get started at www.sce.com.
When I logged into my online account, what impressed me most was the depth of information available. For example, the picture below is a screen shot of my account for Sunday, November 11. This picture tells exactly when my family has been using energy, though it's up to us to figure out what the highest offenders are. I know that I started a load of laundry and used my hair dryer between 8 and 9 a.m., and here we see a corresponding spike. With that knowledge, I can start to investigate ways to lower electricity use, and the corresponding bill.
Importantly, I can manage my energy use for environmental and economic gain. Electricity is at its most expensive and most polluting on hot summer days when the electric utilities must rely on "peaker power plants" that are only turned on when electricity use "peaks" or hits very high levels. Using the Savings Tips tab, I can sign up for incentives, notifications, and discount plans that let me know when we need to reduce electricity use to avoid starting up these plants.
Through the voluntary Save Power Day Incentives, if I am able to reduce electricity use, I can get bill credits. It is important to note that if my electricity use increases during these periods I will be charged more. This program may not work for everyone, like those who work from home, but most of us should be able to reduce energy use a few days a year by simply putting off laundry, turning down the air conditioner, or turning off electronic appliances. Again, reducing energy use just a bit can have a big impact on cost of electricity and pollution levels because the utilities won't have to start up those expensive, polluting peaker plants.
Another tool under the My Account tab is called "Understanding My Bill." Most residents pay for electricity based on the amount we use. The more we use, the more we pay. This is called a tiered system. The first tier guarantees low rates for basic necessities like lighting, cooking, heating and refrigeration. Subsequent tiers (there are five total) have incremental rate increases. The goal is to incentivize us to use less. This is a screen shot of where my electricity use fell in the tier structure for last month. My house is around 1,000 square feet and is very energy efficient, so even with three people, all of the electricity use falls within the first tier -- meaning I pay only $0.13 per kilowatt hour (kWh). But as you can see, if I were to use more energy, I could be paying upwards of $0.32/kWh, almost three times the amount for the same unit of energy! Next year this amount will be even higher as SCE was just approved for a rate increase.
By setting a notification for when electricity costs start creeping into the top tiers, I can take an active role in reducing my electricity bill. (Note, that as homeowners reach Tier 3 and higher, solar electricity becomes cost effective immediately – but that's for another blog post.)
SCE has finally equipped its customers with the information and options that we need to better manage our electricity use. Smart Meters may not appeal to everyone, but as for me, I'm happy to have a tool that helps both my pocketbook and the environment.
More information from SCE can be found at www.SCESmartConnect.com or 1-877-287-2140.
Written by Megan Birney on Tuesday, 06 March 2012.
Almost every product and service we rely on today is manufactured with or transported by some amount of fossil fuels. Of course, the most important thing we can do to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels is to use less. However, when you do make a purchase, we encourage you to shop for energy-smart products that use less energy.
Here at CEC, we're all about energy-smart products that help us move towards a fossil-free lifestyle and a fossil-free future for Santa Barbara.
Last time, you heard about Christa’s favorite gardening book and today, we're hearing from Megan Birney, CEC's Renewable Energy Specialist.
Favorite eco-product: Detours Toocan Utility Pannier
Owned it for: 2 years
When I switched from gas power to pedal power over 3 years ago I began a love affair with my bike. It gets me where I need to go without much effort, saves a ton of money, actually slices my commute time to work (park and walk vs. pedal to the front door), and is a heck of a lot of fun.
But like every relationship there are ups and downs. My issue was transporting life’s necessities: groceries, work computer, beach volleyball, and more. The little basket on the front just wasn’t cutting it. I found myself hauling a backpack and fearing the basket was going to break while speeding downhill on De La Vina from Trader Joes.
That is when I decided to convert my beach cruiser into a commuter bike. The secret ingredients? A rear bike rack and panniers. As it turns out, it is much easier to pull cargo than to push it! Not only did this upgrade double my cargo area, it also made it easier to tote my load from anywhere in town.
The rear rack provides a great base, but any old pannier just wouldn’t cut it for my needs. I needed flexibility and longevity – and it needed to look good. A survey of local bike shops lead me to the Detours Toocan Utility Pannier.
I love the storage capacity of the pannier, but importantly the design made it practical for almost anything. With a hard, rubber bottom and an adjustable/removable shoulder strap, the bag stands on its own but is easy to carry. The design works great for the farmers market; it is sturdy enough to protect peaches and avocados and easy to clean. It also comes with a rain cover for those days when you forget to read the weather report and get caught in a downpour. I also love that it comes in a lot of different colors. I got mine in mint green to match my bike – the “mint julep.”
I’ve had the pannier for about two years now and it still looks almost new. I am amazed at the quality – I stuff it full every day and go to the beach, gym, work and yet there are no rips, tears, unraveling…nothing. Definitely one of the best purchases I’ve made.
You can get a pannier for your bike at CEC's Amazon Store in the Bike Communting section. If you find something you like, a percentage of your purchase comes back to CEC. We hope you'll find an idea to inspire you.
Written by Megan Birney on Wednesday, 08 February 2012.
Environment California recently released a study comparing adoption of solar among California cities. As expected, big cities, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Jose (respectively) came in on top for total number of installed systems, and total installed capacity. Environment California also analyzed small and medium sized cities, and installations per capita. That’s where things get interesting.
Of the 170 municipalities in California with populations over 50,000, Santa Barbara ranks 9th in number of solar installations per capita (0.81 installations per 100 people). While we don’t fair quite as well in installed capacity per capita (19th), we are by far above average in both categories.
The other cities in our region that made the list are Ojai, ranked 12th in the small cities category with almost four solar installations per 100 people, and Paso Robles ranked 7th in the large town category with 0.17 installations per 100 people.
We give credit for this accomplishment to a combination of forward thinking individuals and good government policies.
Ever since the 1969 oil spill, Santa Barbara residents have recognized the importance of moving away from our dependence on fossil fuels for environmental and economic reasons. By installing solar, residents have stabilized their energy costs and those with electric vehicles have switched to fuel supplied by the sun for their transportation needs. We at CEC like to think that we might have helped some of those people make the decision to go solar with events like CEC's Earth Day Festival and Solar SUNday, and our publications like Get Started with Solar (PDF).
The City of Santa Barbara also deserves recognition. Not only has the City has installed solar on government facilities; they have also created a streamlined permitting process for rooftop solar, allowing homeowners to get a permit in less than an hour. Streamlined permitting creates certainty and reduces costs for solar. CEC is proud to have helped develop that process years ago and continues to work with the City on further improvements to the solar permitting process.
And a big thanks to Environment California for collecting and analyzing the data. We look forward to next year’s report.
Written by Megan Birney on Tuesday, 03 January 2012.
We all agree that rooftop solar is important. But what about utility scale solar? At CEC, we think that both have a place in our energy future, but only if they are completed in a responsible, environmentally beneficial manner.
Right now we have the chance to shape solar in our community through two opportunities. First, the County of Santa Barbara has begun a scoping process for the environmental impact report (EIR) for a solar project in Cuyama Valley. Second, the County is considering an amendment to the Land Use and Development Code that would allow solar on agricultural land. If you have concerns or comments on either of these topics, it is crucial that you get involved now so that those issues can be examined and addressed. This is the time during the planning process to have your voice heard.
CEC does not take a position on any project until we have examined the final environmental impact report. However, we do participate throughout the process, increase transparency, and encourage public participation.
To get involved, examine the project proposal. Then email or mail comments, suggestions, or concerns to:
Planning & Development, Energy Division
123 E. Anapamu St
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Send your feedback by Friday, January 20.
Written by Megan Birney on Wednesday, 16 November 2011.
The days are getting shorter, but it's still bright and sunny in the solar realm. Both the City and County of Santa Barbara are working to make it easier for residents to get permits for rooftop solar arrays.
As with any construction project, solar permits are required for homeowners and businesses that want to install solar panels on their roofs. Processing time varies widely depending on the city or county where the permit is granted.
A new, expedited solar permitting process makes solar installations go more smoothly for all parties involved. This improved system lowers regulatory barriers for local businesses and simplifies the process for homeowners. It reduces the amount of municipal staff time needed to process the permits. It also cuts the amount of time solar companies spend on the process, which brings down the cost of solar overall. Solar that costs less, paired with a hassle-free process, makes it easier for Santa Barbarans to generate clean, local and renewable energy for our region. It's a good deal for our local environmental and economic health.
The City of Santa Barbara has lead the way for years with an over-the-counter permitting process that is quicker than most other cities. The City has recently revised their guidelines to make them even more user-friendly. With a little nudging from CEC, the County of Santa Barbara recently stepped up as well. They rewrote their guidelines for residential rooftop solar permitting to expedite the process (read the new County process). A process that used to take 2 to 6 weeks will now only take 2 days. We applaud the elected officials and dedicated staff who made these changes possible.
Now, CEC is working with the other cities in Santa Barbara County to take a second look at their permitting processes, as well as encourage expedited permitting for commercial projects.
Written by Megan Birney on Wednesday, 21 September 2011.
As so many of us have hoped for years, solar is finally front page news. Unfortunately, not all the news is good; some is downright troubling and leads to more questions than answers.
Let's start with the good news.
The cost of solar is down.
The cost of solar for commercial and residential buildings dropped 17 percent from 2009 to 2010 and an additional 11 percent in the first six months of 2011 according DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Utility scale projects (very large projects that sell energy to the electricity grid) have also seen a dramatic decrease in price. This means cheaper electricity for all. It also means cleaner electricity as more utilities, businesses and homes install solar. The U.S. currently has 2.7 gigawatts (GW) of solar installed, which is equal to the capacity of almost three nuclear power plants.
There are two main reasons for the decrease in cost of solar. The first is a drastic change in subsidies in Italy. In anticipation of a huge Italian market, solar integrators demanded more panels from manufacturers. When Italy unexpectedly ended its subsidy program, integrators were left holding more panels than they knew what to do with. The law of supply and demand went to work and we have seen a decrease in the cost of solar.
The low cost of solar is spurring industry growth.
According to the 2011 Solar Jobs Census the solar industry is employing 6.8 percent more workers than last year. The industry now supports over 100,000 people. That is great news in a slow economy.
Unfortunately that's not the full picture.
Irresponsible solar manufacturing in China
Some of the low cost solar panels are not from increased supply, but from decreased quality. In those cases, cost savings are coming from decreased quality of the panels (less efficiency) and decreased quality of the manufacturing process. Less efficient panels aren't always a bad thing, but typically these panels are coming from unregulated manufacturing companies that are spewing pollution into our air and water. Stereotypically, these polluting companies are from China, and while there are some responsible companies manufacturing solar in China, there is some truth to the stereotype. Just this week China closed a solar power plant and fined the company after four days of protest by local villagers over dirty air and water. As with most products, cheaper is not always better, so we as consumers must buy our solar from responsible companies.
U.S. renewable energy policy
There is also a lot of noise about the fall and major scale-back of several big solar companies in the U.S. What this will mean to the larger market is yet to be determined, but given the grumblings about Solyndra, a company that received loan guarantees from the federal stimulus, we should take a moment to examine our federal policies on renewable energy.
First and foremost, any investor (including the government) should be careful about how it invests, and CEC supports thorough oversight. At the same time, investing involves some level of risk and we need stimulus on the research and development (R&D) efforts for renewable energy. Government supported R&D is required to keep pace with other countries who are actively trying to catch up to us in the solar market. The U.S. currently has a trade surplus from solar technologies. It will be difficult to maintain this surplus if we depend solely on manufacturing, given the low cost of labor in other countries. To keep the U.S. competitive, there must be continuous development of new technologies and consumers support of responsible manufacturing and development processes.
More importantly, government needs to set a long term price signal for carbon. Renewable energy companies will continue to fail if they do not get to play on an even playing field. Right now fossil fuel companies have direct subsidies from the federal government and indirect subsidies from society. By allowing them to pollute for free, we are lowering the costs of fossil fuels; (this is also applicable to the polluting solar plant mentioned above).
The true cost of fossil fuel dependence
What we aren't paying at the pump or plug, we're paying in disaster relief. We have had ten $1billion natural disasters in the U.S. this year. Most of them can be associated with the changing climate. Society is paying for our dependence on fossil fuels, only it is not directly associated with the fuels themselves, which leads to a false price. If we set a price on carbon either through a carbon tax or a cap and trade system, it will help the price of fossil fuels reflect the true cost. Only when we pay true costs will renewable energy will be able to compete with fossil fuels on an even playing field.
Written by Megan Birney on Friday, 26 August 2011.
Photo credit: Matt Perko
Keep your eyes peeled for new solar panels on the roofs of your neighbors. For the last 3 months, the Community Environmental Council (CEC) has been spearheading Solarize Santa Barbara, a solar group purchasing program for homeowners in Southern Santa Barbara County. The program made it easier and cheaper for homeowners to go solar, and ended on August 15 with a grand total of 49 people signing contracts to install 205 kW of solar.
This means almost 50 individuals and families will have lower electricity bills, peace of mind that their cost of electricity will remain stable, and a lower environmental footprint.
One of the main goals of Solarize Santa Barbara was to increase the amount of renewable energy in south Santa Barbara County and the program accomplished just that. More importantly, the program raised the profile of solar in this community. People are talking about solar and realizing that it's not as difficult as they thought.
We even met one couple who signed a contract at their first meeting; they had solar installed and their meter spinning backward in a month! While this timeline is faster than normal, it does show what is possible with a simplified process, dedicated homeowners and a responsive installer.
As part of Solarize Santa Barbara, CEC also offered workshops throughout the South Coast in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara and Goleta. Over 75 people attended the workshops and learned about energy efficiency, conservation, and solar energy. Energy efficiency and conservation should always be the first step toward lowering electricity bills because it usually costs less to save energy than to make it. The workshops proved to be a great tool, helping people understand how energy is used, how to save money by reducing use, and how to take advantage of statewide rebates from Energy Upgrade CA.
In addition to helping people go solar, Solarize Santa Barbara has helped CEC further our mission. Included in the purchase price was a small one-time fee based on the size of the solar installation and paid by the installers directly to CEC. This fee will help the CEC continue to promote renewable energy in the Central Coast and be self-sustaining, with no additional cost to the homeowner.
While the program is over, the website for Solarize Santa Barbara is still live and offers plenty of tips for those interested in going solar: www.SolarizeSB.org.
If you are already a proud solarized homeowner, please visit our Facebook page and share your story - How long did the installation take? Any tips for those considering solar? What does your monthly bill look like? We'd love to hear from you.
Written by Megan Birney on Tuesday, 16 August 2011.
Agreement has been reached
CEC supports commercial solar projects in our region because we know how important it is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Generating our own energy from the sun is a great way to reduce our fossil fuel consumption. However, you can't build a commercial solar project just anywhere. They need to be built in strategic locations to ensure minimal impact on the local habitats (i.e. animals, native plants, migratory paths).
Earlier this year, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors approved two large solar projects on the Carrizo Plain, in the eastern part of SLO county. CEC supported these projects, because the sites are located on previously disturbed land and they are near transmission lines/load centers. Read more about CEC's position...
Although CEC supported the project, not all of the national environmental groups were behind the project. Initially, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity felt that the companies, SunPower and First Solar, had not gone far enough to mitigate the impacts of the projects.
Luckily, both companies and the national environmental groups have achieved an ideal situation – clean energy and minimal impact on the local habitat.
They have come to an agreement that will go above and beyond the requirements of the County to preserve additional habitat, such as:
- Bringing the total protected area to 40 square miles;
- Enhancing migratory corridors by removing 30 miles of fencing;
- Reducing use of rodenticides that often harm protected and endangered species.
This agreement will help pave a smooth path toward 800 megawatts (MW) of clean, local energy in our region. That's more than enough energy to power over 150,000 homes. We applaud the developers and the organizations for working toward a solution and helping to end our dependence on fossil fuels.
Written by Megan Birney on Tuesday, 21 June 2011.
Until recently, when homes and businesses with solar panels produced more electricity than they used, the surplus went back into the grid, with no compensation to the building’s owner. Home and business owners were essentially donating free power to the utility company - not the fairest situation.
Almost two years ago, the California legislature passed a bill, the California Solar Surplus Act (AB 920), that required the utilities to pay homeowners for any excess electricity generation or to credit the account for excess generation, just like cell phone “roll over” minutes. While the bill does not allow solar owners to become power plants for their neighborhoods, does allow them to reap all of the benefits from their investment. Even though the bill passed, the dollar amount that the utilities were required to pay had not been determined. This effectively put the program on hold.
Finally, that has changed. Last week, California electricity regulators decided upon a price of approximately 4 cents/kWh generated. That price may rise to 5.8 cents/kWh depending on the value of renewable energy credits and the establishment of a tracking mechanism for those credits. Now, families and businesses with solar have a financial incentive to be more efficient and use less electricity so they can get paid for excess generation. For the Duncan family, that means they would have received $22 for the extra 555 kWh they generated last year instead of receiving nothing at all.
A win for the clean energy movement
Homes and businesses can now contribute renewable energy into the grid and get credit for it. While the price is significantly lower than the retail cost of electricity, it represents an important milestone in California’s efforts to get 33% of our electricity from renewable resources.
Written by Megan Birney on Wednesday, 25 May 2011.
Last week the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors took one step closer to generating a significant amount of the county government's electricity with solar power. There are two solar projects currently underway:
- One at the Laguna County Sanitation District sewer treatment plant that will be one of the largest solar energy projects in Santa Barbara County to date.
- One adjacent to the county jail on Calle Real
Both projects come in at 1MW each; creating enough electricity to power about 400 homes.
Last week, both projects sailed though the County Planning Commission, but the project at the jail still needs Board approval for funding. The Laguna Sanitation District project is already funded through a Qualified Clean Energy Bond (QCEB). The Calle Real project is hoping for the same type of bond funding. On Tuesday the Board approved an application for a QCEB, but they must receive the bond and then the Board must approve the final contract.
While there is still some uncertainty, we are hopeful that both projects will move forward.
If constructed, these projects would increase the amount of solar in Santa Barbara by approximately 30%.
To keep updated on both projects, subscribe to CEC’s enews.
Written by Megan Birney on Friday, 13 May 2011.
Solarize Santa Barbara makes it easier and cheaper to go solar. CEC’s Solarize Santa Barbara is a new group-purchasing discount program for homeowners who want to go solar – kind of like a “Groupon” for solar panels. CEC does all the up-front work and makes it easy for you to go solar. When you participate in Solarize Santa Barbara, CEC will connect you with a pre-approved solar contractor who will give you a great value for a great solar power system.
Get started by attending an introductory workshop.
We’ll explain the benefits of buying in bulk with your neighbors, describe how to participate, and provide an introduction to the Solarize Santa Barbara program. Workshops will cover the basics of energy efficiency and solar, with plenty of time for you to ask questions.
- Introduction to Energy Efficiency
- Basics of Solar Energy
- Financing Solar
June 1, 2011
Carp. Women's Club
1059 Vallecito Rd.
June 7, 2011
Goleta Comm. Center
5679 Hollister Ave.
July 17, 2011
2559 Puesta del Sol
Written by Megan Birney on Tuesday, 26 April 2011.
Last week the County of San Luis Obispo took a huge step toward energy independence by approving a 250 megawatt solar pv farm, also known as the California Valley Solar Ranch. We’re excited about this news. Here’s why:
When it’s up and running, this solar farm will produce enough energy to power over 55,000 homes.
While that’s impressive, it is not the only reason that we like this project. At CEC we are careful about the projects we endorse. We thoroughly review the full environmental impact report and ensure that the project mitigates the impacts to the greatest extent possible. Here’s a little insight into our process.
First, we check out where they are planning to build the project. The location of the project is the most important way to minimize impacts. We support projects that are:
- On previously disturbed land – Most of this particular site is grazing land. Parts are zoned for agriculture and parts were for a development project that never went forward.
- Near existing transmission lines – The transmission line for this project is 3.6 miles from a substation. This is very close! Check out the map below.
- Near existing load centers – This project is near load centers in both San Luis Obispo and King Counties.
Next, we investigate how they are minimizing their impact on the environment. In this project, SunPower plans to (among other things):
- Avoid the most critical of habitat for species of special concern, namely the giant kangaroo rat.
- Acquire conservation lands at a 4:1 ratio. This means that for every acre they disturb, they will put four acres into permanent conservation easements.
- Participate in Regional Recovery Plans for species on the Carrizo Plain.
This SunPower project meets all of our requirements. We are proud to support this transition to safer, cleaner sources of electricity.
Written by Megan Birney on Thursday, 14 April 2011.
We at CEC strongly believe that we can find a balance between the local impacts, and the global and local benefits of renewable energy development. To get there, we’ve got to work together to find solutions to those barriers and set safeguards in place. Only then can we truly have sustainable development that protects the environment, promotes a healthy economy, and creates a more equitable earth.
While you’re poking around this week’s issue of the Independent make sure to check out our Festival Guide. It’s absolutely jam packed with highlights and activities at the Earth Day Festival this weekend. We hope to see you there!
- News from CEC
- Get Involved
- Action Alert
- Personal Stories
- Solar Power
- Fuel Efficient Vehicles
- Energy Smart Products
- Local Food
- Energy Efficient Buildings
- Sustainable Transportation
- Renewable Energy
- Wind Power
Connect with CEC:
Community Environmental Council
26 West Anapamu Street, 2nd Floor
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-963-0583 • firstname.lastname@example.org
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