In Defense of SMUD

We read with astonishment the September 6, 2002 article “Solar Woes Shock SMUD,” by Carrie Peyton Dahlberg in the Sacramento Bee, a link to which was posted soon after on SolarAccess.com that savaged the solar program at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and would like to help ‘set the record straight’.

We read with astonishment the September 6, 2002 article “Solar Woes Shock SMUD,” by Carrie Peyton Dahlberg in the Sacramento Bee, a link to which was posted soon after on SolarAccess.com that savaged the solar program at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and would like to help ‘set the record straight’. The SMUD solar program has, for over a decade, been at the forefront in the large-scale implementation of solar electricity and has served as a successful model both nationally and internationally. Over the past decade, the program has won a number of superlative awards including the California Municipal Utilities Association, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Utility PhotoVoltaic Group/Solar Electric Power Association. In 2001, the SMUD program received the prestigious International Energy Globe Award from Austria accompanied by a check to SMUD for €$10,000 for the 1st place international award. SMUD solar program Manager, Donald Osborn, was quite well thought of as well with the American Solar Energy Society presenting him its Charles Greeley Abbot award, the society’s highest honor, for outstanding achievement in the advancement of solar energy. Dahlberg’s article portrayed a radically different and barely recognizable program to the one we knew as authors of the independent analysis “SMUD’s PV Program: Past, Present and Future.” This report, which we prepared jointly with Warren Schirtzinger of High Tech Strategies (Seattle), and submitted to SMUD on December 30, 2000, appraised SMUD’s solar programs with a full historical and market analysis. Most of the representations of the SMUD solar program in Dahlberg’s article are quite contrary to the understanding we gained from free and open communication with SMUD personnel and independent experts, examination of other independent studies and reports and from complete access to SMUD files and records. Indeed, I doubt whether Dahlberg read our report, or whether she read the more recent report by Dr. Thomas Hoff, submitted to SMUD in March of this year, defending and quantifying the very real “generation credit” to the District – the value that distributed PV, both utility owned and customer owned, accrues to the utility — that Dahlberg refers to as “double counting.” Had she actually researched her article, she would also have noted the praise for SMUD’s solar program in the independent review done of that program by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1999, and in the 2001 review of local energy initiatives across the country by the US Conference of Mayors and the City of Chicago. She also apparently didn’t see the 2001 the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report reviewing the “Factors Associated with Photovoltaic System Costs” (J. Mortensen) in which SMUD’s ‘Sustained Orderly Development’ approach to cost-reduction was lauded. However, all of the reviews referenced above, including our own, were conducted prior to the recent, major reorganization of SMUD’s solar program. Over the last two years, SMUD middle management has increasingly broken up the solar program into fragments. This “reorganization,” portrayed as a way to improve program coordination and mainstream” the program, split up what was a well-coordinated and successful solar program and team and placed program and budget responsibility in several different departments while subjecting it to increased control of the traditional utility planners and economists to whom renewables and distributed generation has always been suspect. Further, management then drastically cut back the budget by the removal in mid-year of the “generation credit” that had been approved as part of the budget process each year and represented about a quarter of the PV program budget. After all this, they wonder why the goals for this year’s program are now not being met. Given the foregoing, I am wondering if all of these views, including our own, would be sustained under the present climate of administration of the program. The SMUD Solar Program was successfully managed for a decade under the able leadership of Donald Osborn to become an international success story. The SMUD Solar Program can and should continue to be a source of civic pride for Sacramento and all of the country while serving as a stimulus for further solar development in a world hungry to be relieved of the atmospheric and financial burdens of fossil fuel burning and the threat of war in the oil fields. We trust that, with the guidance of its publicly elected Board, SMUD will be able to recommit to being a leader for sustainable energy development. As one of the SMUD Board members was quoted in Dahlberg’s article, “. . . the panels that have been installed are sound and will be an ‘environmental gold mine’ for the Sacramento region for years to come.” Distortions of the sort put forth in Dahlberg’s article can influence policy makers who only read headlines. Hopefully this will not interfere with the pursuit, with all reasonable vigor, of SMUD’s dynamic and exemplary renewable energy program, long into the future. About the Authors Steven Strong is President of Solar Design Associates of Harvard, Massachusetts and is a regulary contributor to SolarAccess.com. He can be reached at sjstrong@solardesign.com Donald W. Aitken, Ph.D., is the head of Donald Aitken Associates in Berkeley, California and can be reached at donaldaitken@earthlink.net

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