Going for the green
Sacramento is plagued by ever-worsening traffic congestion and smoggy air, but a green light has appeared on the horizon. The region’s electricity supply will get cleaner and greener if the Sacramento Municipal Utility District has its way.
Under a new energy proposal, SMUD hopes to have 20 percent of the power it sends to homes and businesses come from solar, wind, geothermal and biomass power by 2011. Currently, about 7 percent of the district’s juice (fueling Sacramento County and a bit of Placer County) comes from renewable resources, excluding hydropower, which is a renewable resource but wreaks havoc on fish and aquatic habitat.
The energy plan pitched by SMUD General Manager Jan Schori also includes ramping up energy efficiency programs, which include rebates for customers who buy energy efficient appliances and public educational campaigns. Since 1997, efficiency measures have saved the district 11 megawatts during the summertime when energy use is highest. This has saved 32 million kilowatt (kW) hours of energy annually, said SMUD spokesman Dace Udris. One megawatt (MW), which is equal to 1,000 kW, lights about 750 homes.
If all goes according to plan, the district will boost its funding for renewables, conservation, energy efficiency and low-income assistance, including home improvement weatherization projects. The program is now funded to the tune of $25.7 million a year. Under SMUD’s proposed 10-year plan, funding for the program would rise and be tied to the rate of inflation via the Consumer Price Index, or a similar index. Steadily boosting the amount of fossil fuel-free electricity and energy efficiency will help improve the region’s air quality, provide needed stability and diversify SMUD’s power supply.
“SMUD’s plan is a model for other public and private utilities in California,” said consumer advocate Matt Freedman, an attorney with The Utility Reform Network.
But SMUD is not without its critics.
“This is long overdue,” said John White, head of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. He welcomed SMUD’s energy plan but noted that some of the staff and board members are conservative and have resisted long-term commitments to green power (in no small part because of trying to compete with Pacific Gas and Electric, which is mired in bankruptcy proceedings).
Furthermore, Sacramento’s energy blueprint, which will be subject to public review, is not purely green. The district also proposes building a large power plant at Rancho Seco to help control power costs and ensure the supply of local electrons. The plan is to build a 500 MW natural gas plant by 2006, half of which would be used to fuel homes at a cost that would not be subject to the whims of the chaotic deregulated energy market.
The new plant would reduce the amount of electricity imports, the flow of which is constrained by the congested electricity highway the electrons travel.
“It is one thing if there is enough power, but it is a whole other thing getting it into Sacramento,” said Jim Tracy, SMUD director of planning and budget.
If SMUD’s board agrees to nearly triple its renewable resources over the next decade, the district may be the knight in green shining armor when compared to the federal government’s and California’s energy prospects. The proposed National Energy Policy was developed by a former Halliburton Oil Co. chief executive, Vice President Dick Cheney, along with his industry cohorts behind closed doors, and is heavily weighted toward oil and gas development.
Specifically, it would offer $33.5 billion in tax cuts and incentives to boost oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy’s prospects, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on other federal lands. In addition, the administration asserts that the nation needs to build a new traditional power plant every week for the next two decades.
In contrast, about one-fifth less federal funds than present would go toward renewable energy, conservation and energy efficiency under Cheney’s energy proposal.
“Those skeptics say that the emphasis on dig, drill, burn everywhere and anywhere—including ANWR—is not forward looking; that the billions to cash-rich oil and gas industry is not a good idea,” quipped Oregon Democratic Congressman Peter Fazio, when the energy bill was being debated in early August. He said the 500-page energy plan’s real worth was as fuel for wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.
The state, on the other hand, does not have a long-term energy plan per se. However, a good chunk of our energy future has been determined by the Department of Water Resources, which signed $43 billion in long-term power contracts, all of which were negotiated in secret and by many consultants with financial ties to energy suppliers. Only a tiny fraction of the contracts, which range from several months to 20 years, are renewable energy deals. Locking up so much power from gas-fired plants has wreaked havoc on the renewable suppliers and nearly wiped out the green market (see SN&R, “Blacking Out Green Power,” July 5, 2001).
But things are not all black at the state level. Renewables could get a boost by the newly created California Power Authority, which will be backed by $5 billion in state bonds. The agency is headed by former SMUD chief S. David Freeman, who was the force behind SMUD’s original investments in solar and wind power.
At the authority’s first meeting held August 24, Freeman said he supported boosting green power but made no specific commitments. And green power prospects may get brighter if legislation requiring all retail power suppliers to have their energy mix be 20 percent renewables is passed.
Under the bill by Senator Byron Sher—which is strongly supported by consumer advocates, environmentalists and religious organizations—every investor-owned utility and public power agency would be required to meet the minimum one-fifth green energy standard. The bill passed the Senate and the Assembly Natural Resources Committee last week and will be heard in Assembly Appropriations soon.
Back at the local level, if SMUD’s new power plan flies, renewables would make up 1 million of the 11 million megawatt-hours pumped out by SMUD in 2006 and double that amount the following five years. Furthermore, it would meet the renewable energy standard that would be required by Sher’s pro-renewable legislation.
SMUD’s proposal will soon be put to the test. It will hold eight public workshops on its 10-year energy plan beginning September 11. Community workshops will be held in Sacramento September 13, 20 and 24. SMUD’s board is expected to vote on the plan in October.