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California desert communities say yes to solar, no to climate change

Utility-scale solar development is an important and growing part of the nation’s growing clean energy economy. Much of that development is taking place in the desert counties of Southern California. Just today we helped release a public opinion poll looking at what folks in those very communities think about  solar development.

The results? Overwhelmingly supportive:

Nearly four out of five citizens polled believe that the California desert is a great resource and should be used to develop solar power projects.

The majority of respondents are also concerned about global warming (Editorial note: Rightly so! These ecosystems and the communities they support face a tremendous challenge in climate change – more on that from our friends at Environment California below).

Two out of three agree that renewable energy is an important part of our state’s future and that the state and federal government is right to provide financial support and tax incentives for renewable energy projects.

Jobs and the economy are by far the most important issues concerning voters in California desert counties.  Unemployment rates in the counties polled are high, peaking at a high of 26.8% unemployment in Imperial County.  The construction sector in particular is facing 18.9% unemployment across the state.

Considering utility-scale solar’s job creation benefits, it’s not surprising these communities are largely supportive. The majority of solar jobs are related to system development and installation, representing local jobs that are virtually non-outsourceable. These kinds of high quality labor and trade jobs are critical for rebuilding our state’s struggling middle class. Just this week, Next 10 released a report showing that renewable energy generation jobs actually bucked the recession trend here in California – adding jobs while the general economy lost them.

“Utility-scale solar development is a huge job creator and economic engine and will make a very meaningful impact in the communities in which they are located,” said William Perez, executive secretary and business manager for the San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, Building and Construction Trades Council. “The two gigawatts-worth of large-scale solar projects currently under development in Southern California are expected to put nearly 4,000 people to work in the hard-hit construction sector and providing an immediate economic boost in their local communities.”

“There is a huge job creation benefit to solar projects,” said Greg Devereaux, San Bernardino County CEO. “It’s an economic issue and a social justice issue, and a priority for the county.”

Polling data also showed that citizens of the California desert became even more supportive of utility-scale solar development in their county when informed that solar facilities will improve the overall air quality in their region.  Solar power facilities will reduce dependence on California’s aging, polluting fossil power plants by providing clean solar power, avoiding millions of tons of carbon-dioxide emissions and other air pollutants.

“This survey demonstrates the strong support for large scale solar projects as a way to improve our air quality.  These projects will reduce air pollution, combat climate change and lessen our dependence on the fossil fuels that have caused such great harm to public health,” said Jane Warner, President and CEO, American Lung Association in California.

“Renewable energy will improve the air quality in the region and with better air quality, a better quality of life,” said Anupom Ganguli, PHD, Assistant Deputy Executive Officer, South Coast Air Quality Management District.

SEIA says that as of January of 2012, California had 524 MW operating making the state far and away the nation’s leader: the next highest is Nevada with 150 MW. There’s another 3.25 GW under construction and another 15.5 GW under development – although only some portion of that will ultimately be put into operation. To put those numbers in perspective, an average coal fired power plant is about 500 MW.

California has made a strong commitment to renewable energy development to meet a number of public policy priorities: combatting climate change, building the clean energy economy, creating local jobs, improving public health and improving energy security. The primary mechanism in place to help the state achieve these goals is something called the Renewables Portfolio Standard that requires the state’s electricity providers to get 33% of their electricity from renewables by 2020. It’s the most aggressive renewable target in the nation, and achieving it reliably & cost effectively requires a portfolio approach that includes large-scale solar development.

A fact-based look at our carbon reduction targets and electricity needs confirms that California needs to be pursuing utility scale solar as part of a portfolio approach that also includes rooftop solar, wind, geothermal, efficiency and all the other aspects of a modern clean electric system. Utility scale solar development that accounts for conservation strategies and local interests is a necessary part of the solution.

“Climate change is the foremost environmental challenge facing these desert ecosystems. A business-as-usual approach to energy will cause irreversible extreme weather and severe water shortages for the animals, plants and people that live in these desert ecosystems. Utility scale solar that takes into account careful conservation strategies & local interests is a powerful part of the solution,” added Michelle Kinman, Clean Energy Advocate at Environment California.

More fine print about the study: The survey was underwritten by BrightSource Energy, a utility-scale solar developer, in order to assess public views about solar within local desert communities. Probolsky Research designed the questionnaire and surveyed voters in the Southern California pan-Desert counties of Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial, Inyo and Kern. A total of 1019 telephone surveys were collected.  A study of this size yields a margin of error of +/- 3% with a 95% degree of confidence (+/- 6.9% in each county).  Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish with voters on both landline and cell phones. The survey took place between December 15 through December 18, 2011 and again from January, 12 through January 15, 2012. This was a seriously robust survey!!