Renewable energy propositions will either help or hurt the environment

by Matt Nauman , San Jose Mercury News

Against a backdrop of high gas prices and calls for energy independence, two renewable energy measures on the November ballot claim to offer solutions. Both, however, face uncertain support. Even environmental groups are campaigning against them.

While supporters say Propositions 7 and 10 will lead to cleaner air and cars, groups like the Sierra Club charge the measures could actually hinder the state’s move toward using more solar, wind and geothermal energy. In addition, critics say Proposition 10 is designed to enrich corporations without improving the environment.

Proposition 7, known as the Solar and Clean Energy Act, would require a great increase the amount of renewable energy generated in the state, up to 50 percent by 2025. It would fast-track the permitting process for renewable power plants and change the mechanism for how utilities are punished for not meeting these goals.

The state’s big utilities, such as Pacific Gas & Electric, unions and many environmental groups argue that the measure is poorly written and will halt California’s progress toward clean-energy goals because it will interfere with the goals set out by landmark global-warming legislation.

The measure has loopholes and lacks a steady source of funds to pay for renewables, according to the Sierra Club. The group said the existing system, where the governor and the Legislature are working to boost California’s renewable standard from 20 percent in 2010

to 33 percent in 2020, while state agencies such as the Air Resources Board, Energy Commission and Public Utilities Commission regulate the process, seems to be working.

The state’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office says the measure will likely increase electricity rates in the short term. The long-term impact on rates is unknown, it says.

The California Solar Energy Industries Association also opposes the measure because small energy projects of 30 megawatts or less won’t be counted toward the state’s renewables goal, said Sue Kately, the group’s director. While big solar projects such as the 250-megawatt photovoltaic solar plant with San Jose’s SunPower grab headlines, a majority of projects under way are small ones, Kately said.

"We think projects under 30 megawatts are pretty darn important," Kately said. She noted that these small projects can generate electricity for a school or business, and don’t face the same problems with access to transmission lines that bigger solar installations face.

Kately admitted it is uncomfortable to campaign against a renewable-energy proposition. "I wish desperately that they had talked to us first," she said.

Much of Proposition 7’s backing comes from the Sperling family, the Arizona founders of the University of Phoenix. The Sperling family has deep roots in California, said Steve Hopcraft, a spokesman for the Yes on 7 campaign. John Sperling was a professor at San Jose State University when he came up with the idea of the University of Phoenix. His son, Peter Sperling, owns a home in Santa Barbara and "has a long history of donating to environmental causes," Hopcraft said.

Another supporter of the measure is S. David Freeman, author of "Winning Our Energy Independence" and a former executive with the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. He’s currently president of the board of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, but supports Proposition 7 as a private citizen.

Proposition 7 is "just what the doctor ordered," Freeman said. The utilities convinced the state Legislature not to adopt stronger renewable standards. Utility officials are "not bad people," he said. "I was, in a sense, one of them. But they’re not chock-full of environmental activists."

In Freeman’s view, even if Proposition 7 is imperfect, voters must ask themselves, "Are we in a climate crisis or not?"

While Proposition 7 sets expanded goals for renewables, Proposition 10 offers money to those who buy alternative-fuel vehicles.

Proposition 10, the California Renewable Energy and Clean Alternative Fuels Act, would authorize $5 billion in bonds to provide cash payments for people who buy alternative-fuel vehicles and businesses that buy alternative-fuel trucks. It also would fund some research grants.

Most opponents focus on two aspects of Proposition 10. The first is that California’s fiscal problems won’t be helped with another $5 billion worth of debt, which will grow to about $10 billion over 30 years, once interest is added in. They also argue that this is a move by T. Boone Pickens to get the state to pay for his much-publicized energy plan. A billionaire oilman turned wind-and-natural gas advocate, Pickens heads Clean Energy Fuels, a natural-gas supplier and the primary financial backer of the proposition.

Proposition 10 is "riddled with loopholes and does nothing to clean up our air," said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California. He notes that environmental and public-health groups oppose the measure, too. He charges that Proposition 10 is "masquerading" as a clean-the-air measure, but it sets no such goals. In fact, he said, the measure defines a "clean alternative fuel vehicle" as one that produces "no net material in air pollution” when compared to gasoline cars.

"You’ve got to follow the money when one corporation exclusively funds a ballot measure," Holober said. "This is a business investment for that corporation."

Todd Campbell, a former analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, joined Clean Energy Fuels three years ago. He agrees that the passage of Proposition 10 will help his company. But, he said, it also will help propel the market to produce vehicles with substantially increased fuel economy ‘ natural-gas cars, hydrogen fuel-cell cars and electric cars.

"These incentives will send market signals to manufacturers," he said. "They will reward higher efficiency vehicles, not the hybrid Chevy Tahoe that gets 23 mpg."