When Will We Go Green? 

Some Bay Area communities are forming public-power networks to buy and build renewable energy, but East Bay cities have been slow to join the green revolution. Is that about to change?

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This fact and other limitations have caused California to fall far behind in renewable energy development. Gipe points to Europe and Japan — where thousands of megawatts have been added in just several years using broader, less restrictive feed-in tariffs — as clear leaders. Even foggy England has bested sunny California in solar, with 1,300 megawatts brought online in under two years thanks to better feed-in tariffs.

Marin Energy Authority, meanwhile, will also have to change its feed-in tariff policy to allow Richmond to use it for a local build-out of solar. Under the authority's current rules, only renewable projects built within Marin County are eligible to participate in the feed-in tariff program. "In order for Richmond to be included in our FIT territory, we will need to update our implementation plan and obtain approval from the California Public Utilities Commission," said Jamie Tuckey, a representative of the authority. "This will likely happen in August." Clearly, then, Richmond's bid to rebuild its economy with green, local energy will face piecemeal laws and confused half-measures currently limiting renewables. With an official unemployment rate of 16 percent (more than twice the national average) Richmond is in desperate need of good local jobs, such as those that could be provided by a major solar installation program spurred by a feed-in tariff.

Some are also concerned that Richmond is too eager to join Marin Energy Authority, and that the authority serves as a poor model for what aggregation can actually deliver. By joining the authority, "Richmond residents will have to pay more than they are now," said Al Weinrub, coordinator of the Local Clean Energy Alliance. "The green portfolio benefit means getting energy through Shell Energy, probably from big central power plants out in the desert, and Renewable Portfolio Standard credits, which aren't green energy at all." These sorts of renewable energy credits are certificates traded in the market that represent the creation of "green" energy somewhere. A utility can claim to be stimulating the production of renewable energy, or even purchasing renewable energy for its customers, when it obtains such credits, even if the actual electricity fed to its customers comes from a gas, nuclear, or coal plant. Furthermore, these credits do nothing to stimulate the local development of renewable energy, and may even promote development of distant mega-solar projects that will have no local economic impacts.

Weinrub said he doesn't think what Marin Energy Authority is offering Richmond is very compelling. "They get something that's called 'green energy' and they pay more." Weinrub thinks Richmond should be getting more assurances that its economic goals can be realized by joining the authority. A survey of the authority's current portfolio of energy providers shows that California's only currently operational CCA is in fact drawing the vast majority of its electricity from large biogas and wind projects in the Central Valley and farther away — meaning virtually no local jobs have been generated in Marin County. CCA advocates like Weinrub and Fenn say the main mechanisms by which a CCA can reduce consumer bills below PG&E's rates require the reinvestment of ratepayer revenues in local energy conservation and efficiency programs and local renewable sources, instead of buying energy from distant big green power plants and through credits. The latter variety of "green" power comes with a premium cost.

At a recent gathering of green-energy advocates, Fenn asked: "What's the goal?" He then answered: "The goal should be to determine what actually gets built, not just focusing on creating a CCA as if it was important in itself. Because it isn't."

Fenn is a guru for energy activists, a go-to guy on both minute technical questions, as well as the big-picture political vision. This is partly because Fenn was the main author of AB 117 and understands the radical potential of CCA like few others. His company, Local Power, Inc., also works in the trenches, and is currently helping to launch the most ambitious CCA yet: CleanPowerSF. According to Fenn, CCA only makes economic sense if the build-out of local renewable resources is adopted from the very start.

Like Marin Energy Authority, CleanPowerSF was met initially by PG&E with a full frontal assault aimed at destroying its viability. PG&E bankrolled Proposition 16 in 2010, a statewide measure that was largely about crushing CleanPowerSF and other CCAs being planned. And though Prop 16 failed to get the necessary votes to become law, it had a deleterious effect on San Francisco.

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