By Andrew Kellogg
It is no surprise to see that Lancaster, California, has received the international Energy Globe Award for its accomplishments in alternative energy sources. A suburb located north of Los Angeles, Lancaster is the home of around 150,000 residents. It prides itself on its diversity and a “business-friendly” atmosphere. While it may seem like a typical city, Lancaster has distinguished itself by pioneering some of the greatest strides forward in sustainability, particularly in mandating solar power among residential and commercial properties.
The Energy Globe award is given each year, considering applications from over one hundred countries, exposing the sustainable efforts of communities all over the world to those who would otherwise be unaware of their existence. Lancaster’s mayor, Rex Parris, who has largely been responsible for leading the charge in sustainable efforts, expressed gratitude and noted that:
The City of Lancaster has made great strides toward our goal of becoming the alternative energy capital of the world, yet we couldn’t have done it without our partners. It is our successful public-private partnerships with companies such as KB Home, BYD, and SolarCity that have multiplied our efforts, increased our efficiency, and helped us achieve these accomplishments in a very short period of time.
With so much controversy focused on corporations favoring financial shortcuts over environmental concerns, Lancaster is backed by the support of several companies dedicated to energy efficiency, and may even owe the bulk of their solar achievements to them.
With a town that receives 325 days of sunshine every year, it is no surprise to see Lancaster harnessing the power of solar energy. With its natural advantages, and the partnerships with local companies, its citizens are in the unique position of paying less for solar power than utility power. This itself is an important stride forward in economic and environmental history, tipping the scales in the consistently unbalanced nature between sustainability and cost. This is by no means a new obstacle in the struggle for sustainable energy, however. Several decades ago, Bezdek, Hirshberg, & Babcock (1979) stated that “solar energy is not currently competitive with the average residential price of natural gas in any region” (p. 1219). The researchers go on to say that this is likely to change with the expected future pricing of gas, as well as changes in economic policies of the government.
It appears the researchers were quite right. Although the significant changes are recent, Lancaster’s required solar energy is an example of this change. In fact, the town has goals of producing more energy than they consume on a daily basis. While this is a lofty goal that is yet to be achieved (the town currently produces 39 megawatts of solar power, and needs 126 megawatts to achieve the goal, with 50 megawatts currently under construction), the tenacity of the town’s leaders and the demonstrated devotion of its residents have the potential to make this goal a reality.
The specifics of the solar energy program aren’t as intrusive as might be expected. It mandates that all newly constructed homes built starting next year require a 1.0 kilowatt solar system if they are on lots of 7000 square feet or less, and 1.5 kilowatt systems in rural lots greater than 100,000 square feet. Aside from the obvious benefits, the previous article explains that the plan exists “to encourage investment in solar energy on all parcels in the city, while providing guidelines for the installation of those systems that are consistent with the architectural and building standards of the city” (Boyer, 2013). This is consistent with the city’s implementation of solar panels inside the home as well as outside in City Hall, the performing arts center, and stadium, as well as many other non-residential locations.
While Lancaster’s mayor Rex Parris can’t help but declare his intentions to make Lancaster the “solar energy capital of the world,” he is not met without opposition. While there is some flexibility for the developers, such as aggregating requirements of multiple homes into single ones, or even purchasing solar energy credits in lieu of installing solar energy systems, it is still an inconvenience compared to ignoring solar power altogether. But ignoring the inherent benefits that the sun can offer Lancaster for short-term convenience is foolish at best. “Solar energy could help planners address many social dilemmas, possibly including national security, economic growth, climate stewardship, sustainable land use, and economic development (Zahran, Brody, Vedlitz, Lacy, & Schelly, 2008, p. 420). The report by Zahran et al. (2008) goes on to discuss the importance of taking advantage of the solar energy available, and that the issue is not “solely a technological or private marketing issue, but is also influenced by local community characteristics” (p. 431).
Rex Paris confirms this need of support, saying on the adversity and pressure faced by local developers: “I could not do that without a City Council . . . with the courage to take that heat” (Boyer, 2013). Clearly, these initiatives are not in every individuals goals, and with the power and money behind the interests of developers, it is an impressive accomplishment for Lancaster’s solar energy achievements to shine so brightly in the shadow of big business.
Figure 3. Lancaster Stadium Parking Lot
(source: Monica Almeida, New York Times)
Relying on gas for heat isn’t the only obstacle Lancaster is tackling. There is an entire array of efforts to make Lancaster as sustainable as it can be. These include combating illegal dumping through city task forces, recycling programs for various products from tires to Christmas trees, and city-wide education on green office practices. The city also has an initiative to focus on alternative sources of fuel for their vehicles. To date, 22% of the city’s vehicles are making use of some form of alternative energy, be it hybrid vehicles or a combination of diesel and natural gas (CNG). While solar energy may be the forefront of Lancaster’s sustainability efforts, it is not by any means their only concern.
However, in the midst of so much to be proud of at present, Lancaster is not without its own problems. Considering the climate of Southern California, it is no surprise that water consumption is an issue. However, Lancaster in particular stands out in need of water waste reform. Even the town’s official website states that “Lancaster households use twice as much water as the average household in Los Angeles County and three times more than other western cities that are concerned about water conservation.” The city’s current proposed solution is conservation initiatives, particularly in outdoor water use, which accounts for seventy percent of consumed water. But with such ambitious plans to actually produce more energy than consumed through solar power, is conservation education really the best that the city can do?
It seems that the success Lancaster is experiencing is not due to any one factor, but the support of the community as a whole from residents to businesses. While “the amount of solar radiation a locality receives is crucial for determining whether solar product installation will make economic sense”, “household willingness to install solar thermal technologies is a question of environmental, economic, and social geography” (Zahran et al., 2008, p. 421). There is little doubt that Lancaster is successfully overcoming all three obstacles, with its beneficial geographic location, thriving economy, and willingness of its leaders and residents alike to take advantage of its natural opportunities.
Overall, the efforts of Lancaster are an effective and far-reaching step toward long-term sustainability. While not all towns are in such an advantageous position to be exposed to so much sunlight on so many days of the year, it is a powerful message to send that local adversity can be overcome, and that sustainability is not by necessity an economic drag. The important lesson that Lancaster teaches us is not that they were able to take advantage of a specific detail in a specific way, but that “citizens are exploring new ways of doing business and of opening up exciting possibilities — often well in advance of political leadership” (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban and Economic Development Policy Division, 1998, p. 7). While Lancaster has a long time to wait before it sees mass implementation, and subsequent benefits, of all its efforts, the path has been set for other towns to follow their lead.
Bezdek, R., Hirshberg, A., & Babcock, W. (1979). Economic feasibility of solar water and space heating. Science, 203(23), 1214-1220.
Boyer, M. (2013, March 4). Lancaster California to require all new homes to have solar panels. Inhabitat.com. Retrieved December 1, 2013, from http://inhabitat.com/lancaster-california-to-require-all-new-homes-to-have-solar-panels/
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban and Economic Development Policy Division. (1998). Sustainability in action: Profiles of community initiatives across the United States. Retrieved from http://www.sustainable.org
Zahran, S., Brody, S., Vedlitz, A., Lacy, M., & Schelly, C. (2008). Greening local energy. Journal of the American Planning Association, 74(4), 419-434.
Banner image: Lancaster Museum & Art Gallery (PSL Architects, 2011)