With Prop. 7, California argues its energy future

The ballot initiative would mandate more renewables. So why are many environmentalists against it?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Applied Materials' newly completed solar energy system at their Sunnyvale, Calif., research campus is one of the largest corporate solar power installations in the United States.
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California, which leads the country in cutting the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, is trying to accelerate its “green revolution.”

But several leading research and environmental organizations warn that the latest attempt could backfire, reducing the state’s push to embrace renewable energy.

A citizen’s initiative – Proposition 7, which goes before voters Nov. 4 – requires all electric utilities to provide half of their electricity from solar and other clean energy sources by 2025. The initiative would double what utilities are now asked to do under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. Currently, California utilities derive about 11 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.

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Meanwhile, the state is already struggling to implement the landmark California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 requiring a 25 percent cut in industrial greenhouse gases by 2020.

Prop. 7 is a dangerous anomaly, say several key observers, because it is well meaning, but incompetently written.

“This was put together by a firm with no experience in this industry with political consultants whose only focus was to write a title and summary that made it appealing to voters,” says V. John White, director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Sacramento.

“This is a very complicated initiative on top of existing state law which is not meeting its goals because of flaws,” says Mr. White. “They should have asked for help and didn’t. They made several unintentional mistakes because of the way they drafted it.”

Ralph Cavanaugh of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says, “We would be for it if it did what it said, which was to raise our renewable energy contributions.” But he says the drafters “botched” the definition of renewables by excluding power plants under 30 megawatts. And he says the drafters “rewrote the entire rule book on where you can put the power plants and transmission lines ... a guarantee for years of obstruction and delay.” As a result, he says, “This is the most impressive body of opposition I’ve ever seen.”

Organizations fighting the initiative include NRDC, Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Union of Concerned Scientists, plus all of the state’s major renewable energy companies.
Also against the measure are the Democratic and Republican parties, the California Taxpayers’ Association, and the state Chamber of Commerce.

One of the major voices strongly in favor of the initiative is David Freeman, author of “Winning Our Energy Independence.”

“No one seems to fully appreciate the speed with which global warming is happening and how fast the polar ice caps are melting,” says Mr. Freeman, who has held top positions at several major energy agencies, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “I think the environmental movement is wrong on this one.”

A July California Field Poll showed low voter awareness of Prop. 7 but 63 percent of likely voters in favor. Since then the number of state newspapers editorializing against the measure has grown to 17, including the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Orange County Register.

The state’s independent Legislative Analyst directly challenged one claim of the initiatives drafters, that the measure would “reduce the rising costs of energy.”

Instead, Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill concluded: “Higher electricity rates are more likely in the short term,” and “the same cost factors ... might also lead to higher, long-run electricity rates.”

Meanwhile the debate is getting hotter and heavier.

“Prop. 7 would force the conversion from affordable and proven coal, oil and nuclear power,” wrote the Orange County Register. “If solar and wind are so economical, affordable and reasonable, why haven’t utilities already converted?”

Counters Freeman: “Utilities are used to running their plants on dirty fuels and will go on doing so unless required to switch.”

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