California Proposition 7 

Redefining renewable energy to concentrate power.

Proposition 7 on California's November 2008 ballot is presented by its supporters as an opportunity for the state to provide leadership in attacking the looming crises of global warming and climate change. The measure accelerates the timetable requiring California's utilities to convert to renewable sources of electricity, and outlines its "path to energy independence": build giant solar plants in the desert and the requisite transmission infrastructure to deliver the power hundreds of miles.

Among the many tools available to shift the energy economy from fossil fuels to renewables, Proposition 7 relies on the regulatory framework of California's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), a quota system stipulating what percentages of retail sales of electricity in California must come from renewable sources — such as solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal — by target dates. By setting the ambitious benchmarks of 40 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2025, Proposition 7 has tapped into widespread public support for profound action to transform the energy economy.

If accelerating the RPS was all that Proposition 7 did, it would likely enjoy the support from the numerous organizations now allied in opposition to it — environmentalists, cities, renewable energy companies, labor associations — leaving only the big utilities to oppose it. But there is more to Proposition 7 than its ambitious RPS targets and the sweeping claims of efficacy. Proposition 7 is a complex set of changes to the Public Utilities Code and Public Resources Code — changes that would hand control of the emerging renewable energy economy over to a few entities.

Proposition 7 reserves all of its benefits for "solar and clean energy plants," defined as having "a generating capacity of 30 mega-watts or more," and by requiring utilities to sign twenty-year contracts with energy providers, the Proposition effectively excludes micro-producers — such as owners of rooftop solar panels — from counting toward the mandate. While ignoring environmentally friendly measures such as distributed generation and demand reduction, the Proposition allows, for example, as a "solar and clean energy facility" (thereby counting toward its RPS targets), "[a] facility engaged in the combustion of municipal solid waste located in Stanislaus County ..."

The tragedy of Proposition 7 is that it threatens to divert renewable energy development into the same centralized model that underlies the coal, oil, and nuclear industries. In contrast to fossil fuels, sunlight and wind are everywhere, and existing technologies allowing the capture, storage, and exchange of that energy by individuals and communities are rapidly evolving. The promise of renewable energy, beyond addressing the unsustainability of fossil-fuel consumption, is that it enables the democratization of the energy economy.

That promise is no pipe dream: even given current disincentives, such as the inability of micro-generators to sell their "surplus power," renewable micropower in California already comprises 200 megawatts annually. This picture could change entirely in the five years required to build already-planned giant solar facilities. Analysts predict that the price of solar micro-power generation will drop to below retail grid parity in the next ten years. This, combined with simple reforms to metering policies, can drive an expansion of California's distributed solar market that will dwarf its current 30 percent annual growth.

The advantages of decentralized renewable energy for California are obvious. Generation assets will be owned by millions of individuals and businesses instead of a few giant conglomerates. Power will be essentially immune from the manipulation and disruption such as Californians experienced in 2001. And that infrastructure will use existing rooftop space instead of gobbling up pristine desert lands.

Why, then, would the centralized fossil-fuel model be applied to ubiquitous clean renewable energy resources? In a word, profits.

The control of scarce resources is a time-tested method of concentrating wealth and power. Although renewable energy is not scarce, the paradigm shift in public understanding about the fundamental differences between renewables and fossil fuels is only beginning. By pushing through massive permanent infrastructure projects to control the collection and distribution of renewable energy, Proposition 7 will starve needed investment in distributed renewables. Meanwhile, that infrastructure will provide profit centers for a few corporations at our expense.

In addition to its rules excluding participation by micro-producers, the Proposition subsidizes the building of power lines by funneling RPS non-compliance fees into a new powerlines fund while limiting review of projects and preventing consideration of alternative to building the power lines.

In empowering the Commission to "Identify and designate Solar and Clean Energy Zones — primarily in the desert," the Proposition attempts to define what belongs to all (sunlight, wind, geothermal energies) as being restricted to "zones" — zones that will be controlled by corporations beholden only to their shareholders.

Proposition 7 presents itself as remedy to the abuses of one set of giant entities — California's utilities — only to hand control to another set of less accountable giant entities. A look into the likely beneficiaries of the measure turns up companies with histories of Pentagon contract work, like the Carlyle Group and URS Corp, and energy giants, like Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems and Florida-based FPL Energy.

Proposition 7 is likely to increase rather than decrease California's carbon footprint and contribution to the very problems to global warming and climate change that it purports to address. Its flawed program for renewable energy development:

* Relies on RPS quotas which are poor measures of carbon reduction.

* Depends on a meager discretionary penalty structure to enforce RPS compliance.

* Excludes proven, cost-effective methods of reducing the carbon footprint of the energy economy — conversion to distributed generation and demand reduction.

* Mandates the deployment of a land-hungry soon-to-be-obsolete infrastructure whose carbon footprint is not factored into the RPS.

The proposition may be the product of good intentions, a victim of the illusion that the wealth of the renewable energy rainbow lies in a distant pot of gold to be excavated by vast machines and shipped hundreds of miles by power lines. California, blessed with so much innovative know-how, can do better.

A more in-depth analysis is available at: CaliforniaPhoton.com

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