California ballot: Betting on Big Solar

Utilities and enviros team up against Proposition 7

Proposition 7 would force utilities to get more solar and other renewable power online—in a hurry.

Proposition 7 would force utilities to get more solar and other renewable power online—in a hurry.

We all get it. The glaciers are melting. The sea is rising. Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more severe. And no matter how many bike miles we log or how many fluorescent light bulbs we buy, conservation alone may not avert the most disastrous consequences of climate change.

Harnessing the near limitless power of the sun, wind, water and earth could help. But how do we do it? Who is going to pay for the solar panels and wind turbines? And how fast does it have to happen?

This November, Californians will have a chance to try to settle some of these questions as they vote on the Solar and Clean Energy Act of 2008. The initiative, Proposition 7, would substantially increase renewable-energy targets. It requires all of California’s electric utilities to generate 20 percent of their energy from clean, renewable sources by 2010.

That requirement would ramp up by 2 percent every year toward a goal of 50 percent renewable energy by 2025. And that would force public and private utilities to find new sources of energy from solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and small hydroelectric dams to power California’s future—in a hurry.

Former San Francisco County Supervisor Jim Gonzalez, chief proponent and campaign strategist for the initiative, said the measure gives California an opportunity to take aggressive steps in combating global warming. “It’s OK to pat yourself on the back for buying a twisty bulb or hybrid car, but wouldn’t it be better to go out and vote for something that’s going to reduce tons of emissions?” he asked.

Proposition 7 received $1.8 million in seed money from Arizona billionaire Peter Sperling, son of University of Phoenix founder John Sperling. Most of that money was spent on signature gathering to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

The opposition group, Californians Against Another Risky Energy Proposition, says there are fundamental flaws in the well-intentioned but poorly written initiative, by locking utilities into long-term contracts and slowing down renewable development by changing the rules by which new projects are approved. But according to a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the clean-energy initiative will have limited impact on ratepayers. The initiative limits rate increases to less than 3 percent per year.

The opposition is funded in large part by PG&E, Southern California Edison and Sempra Energy, who collectively have kicked in just over $1 million to block the measure.

The initiative’s renewable targets are an ambitious extension of an existing state law called the Renewables Portfolio Standard. That law requires the state’s energy mix to be 20 percent renewable by 2010.

Attempts in the state Senate to raise the standard to 33 percent by 2020 have failed so far. But late last month, the California Air Resources Board signaled it wanted to impose similar regulations in its effort to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution to 1990 levels by 2020.

The provisions of Proposition 7 would for the first time impose renewable-energy requirements on publicly owned utilities like SMUD and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

SMUD has not taken an official position on the initiative, but Mike DeAngelis, manager of SMUD’s Advanced Renewable and Distributed Generation Technologies program, said the targets seem arbitrary.

“Just throwing out a round number and a year doesn’t make it happen,” he said of the initiative’s 50 percent by 2025 target. SMUD has been a leader in procuring clean energy and promoting “green pricing” even without a state mandate, said DeAngelis. SMUD already achieved a self-imposed renewable goal of 12 percent by 2006, and is well on its way to the next benchmark of 23 percent by 2011.

SMUD knows where to find additional clean-energy resources, said DeAngelis. The problem is getting the energy from remote sites where the sun and wind are best captured to places where customers can use it. A 100-megawatt wind farm in Rio Vista is the last of the immediately accessible projects that won’t require a large investment in new transmission lines—a process that can take 10 to 20 years and millions of dollars for approval and construction.

While utility companies worry about moving the renewable energy goal post, environmental groups have their own concerns. Dan Kalb, policy director with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley, said the language of the initiative provides too many loopholes for utilities to avoid meeting the renewable standards and paying penalties for noncompliance. The provisions would also allow utilities to count signed contracts towards their renewable-energy goals, even before they bring the power online. Kalb and others also complain that the new law could only be amended with a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature, or by yet another ballot measure.

Even representatives of the renewable industry are concerned that the initiative won’t treat all technologies fairly. Sue Kateley, executive director of California’s Solar Energy Industries Association based in Rio Vista, said the new standards are biased towards large-scale energy plants instead of distributed, rooftop solar.

The proponents of the initiative admit that they expect much of the new renewable generation will come from massive solar power plants in the desert. Gonzalez says concentrating solar power, also known as solar thermal, is the technology that’s simplest, most affordable and most ready to be deployed on a large scale.

“We’re not talking about photovoltaic,” said Gonzalez, “we’re talking about mirrors.” Giant fields of mirrors, that is, arrayed in the desert to capture sunlight to heat a liquid (water or synthetic) that in turn drives a steam generator to create electricity.

The technology, nicknamed “Big Solar,” is still relatively young, but not entirely unproven. Several such generation plants already exist across the desert Southwest, and PG&E and SCE both have contracts for several more on the books.

In the eyes of proponents, Big Solar is a no-brainer. Areas like the Mojave are awash in sunlight, waiting to be tapped as abundant and “free” energy. The initiative requires the California Energy Commission to create Solar and Clean Energy Zones, mostly in the desert, and fast-track approval of projects sited in those areas.

Indeed, in the very language of the ballot initiative, proponents claim that “these mirrors are so efficient that a large square array, eleven miles on a side, may be able to generate enough electricity to meet all of California’s needs and at a lower cost than we are paying today.”

But many environmentalists worry about the effect that 121-square-mile solar power plant would have on sensitive desert areas. Donna Charpied, an advocate for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, worries utility companies will ride roughshod over the desert for the benefit of city dwellers. “Realistically, we need to the cut umbilical cord,” she said. “Urban areas have to take a self- sustaining process.”