California Fails to Pass Renewable Energy Bill

California wrestles with its clean energy goals. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

It came down to the final minutes before midnight last night for SB 722, the bill that would make law California’s 33% renewable energy goal by 2020. But as the bill’s author State Senator Joe Simitian says, “The clock just ran out. It’s as simple and painful as that.”

Last night marked the deadline for state legislators to pass any bills before the end of the two-year legislative session. In a flurry of activity, SB 722 cleared the assembly floor, but failed to make it to the senate before the clock struck twelve.

“We are extremely disappointed and a little perplexed about what happened,” says Laura Wisland is a clean energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We think not establishing a 33% renewable portfolio standard this year is a huge loss to California’s environment and economy.”

The 33% goal isn’t a new thing. Governor Schwarzenegger established it last year in an executive order that directed the Air Resources Board to begin setting up the renewable portfolio standard (RPS). But supporters fear that an executive order could be reversed by a future governor. And according to an analysis by the state’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst, he RPS is also vulnerable to Proposition 23, the state ballot initiative that would suspend AB 32 (California’s sweeping 2006 climate law) and related regulations. See Craig Miller’s recent post for more on Prop 23’s reach.

Wisland says converting the 33% goal into state law would send a strong signal to clean energy developers. “The market really needs the certainty of a law to be secure with making the investments we need to actually reach this goal,” said Wisland.

But SB 722 may yet have a future. The Governor has the power to call a special legislative session in which legislators could take up the bill again. He alluded to that in a press conference today: “I think anything that was not accomplished I would try to get them done before I leave office, yes. I think that we can do that while we do the budget negotiations,” Governor Schwarzenegger said.

Simitian says the special session is a possibility, since the RPS is key part of the Governor’s green legacy. “This is a goal that I think we share and whether it’s for environmental reasons or sound energy policy, or as an economic driver for the state, I think it’s something we should do sooner rather than later.”

California Fails to Pass Renewable Energy Bill 1 September,2010Lauren Sommer

4 thoughts on “California Fails to Pass Renewable Energy Bill”

  1. The fact that this law did not pass gives me hope for the future of California.
    Many people do not realize the negative impacts this law would have on all of us and I hope KQED will expose more of the realities of our current renewable energy policy.

    Right now there is an unsubstantiated push for utility-scale solar that is threatening California’s prime agriculture lands, pristine open spaces and our sensitive wildlife species. Rather than devote stimulus funds towards developing distributed renewable energy, generated on rooftops and throughout urban areas close to point-of-use, this money is going towards developers with no experience in renewables and a hunger for free money.

    For example, beautiful Panoche Valley in San Benito County, is currently engaged in a battle to preserve an important piece of California’s agricultural and biological resources. Venture capitalists with a history in oil drilling and ethanol production, (both highly subsidized by the gov’t) and no experience in solar, want to cover over half of the valley (5,000 acres) with solar panels because land is cheap and the county poor – conditions the company, (Solargen) thought would make the permitting process easier. Also, they stand to gain $360 million of ARRA funds – your tax dollars – if the project is approved by county officials.

    The problem is Panoche Valley is home to a suite of threatened and endangered species, (Giant Kangaroo Rat, San Joaquin Kit Fox, Tiger Salamander, Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard) and a designated Important Bird Area of Global Concern due to it’s value as wintering grounds for a plethora of sensitive bird species including the Snowy Plover. It is also home to a diverse group of organic and sustainable farmers and ranchers that value the pristine environment and take great measures to protect it. Most of the agriculture in the valley is in the form of grazing, keeping the grassland grazed to a height the native species prefer and mimicking the job once performed by native herds of elk and deer.

    My husband and I raise pastured hens for eggs which we sell throughout the Bay Area, (Your Family Farm). My neighbors have one of only two raw/fresh milk dairys in the state, (Claravale Dairy). Another neighbor raises heirloom varieties of organic vegetables, (Heirloom Organics). Another raises pastured pork, lamb and beef, (Douglas Ranch Meats). This is just a small sampling of the food production happening in harmony with nature in Panoche Valley. It’s local, it’s beyond-organic, it benefits wildlife and it preserves a way of food production that we need even more in the face of recent industrial farmings problems with salmonella and ecoli. These methods of food production do not have those issues because they strive to mimic nature and allow the animals to follow their natural behavior.

    One of the mind-boggling things is there are alternatives. The Westlands Water District in Fresno County is a retired agricultural area due to lack of irrigation drainage and high levels of selenium build-up in the soil. It has been designated by the California as a CREZ, (California Renewable Energy Zone). The Westlands CREZ is 30,000 acres within the entire 600,000 acre Weslands District. It has the potential to produce 5,000 MW of renewable energy versus the 420 MW Solargen hopes to produce in Panoche Valley. It is traversed by transmission lines with a verifiable transmission capacity. It is unclear whether the transmission line which crosses Panoche Valley will need upgrading to handle the load Solargen proposes to generate and results are being waited for from CAISO and the PUC, (Solargen is low on the priority list and it’s unknown when results will be available).

    There have been numerous studies done by engineers stating that with the development of the Westlands CREZ, along with current distributed energy projects in the works with PG&E and Southern Edison, California can reach it’s renewable energy mandate of 33% by 2020. Rather than assist in developing the Westlands CREZ, the Governor’s office and Michael Picker, (chosen by Schwarzenegger to assist in “fast-tracking” the top 26 industrial utility-scale renewable projects) are using our desire for renewable energy to eliminate important wildlife and agricultural safeguards such as CEQA, (California Environmental Quality Act) and the Williamson Act, (officially known as the Land Conservation Act). Counting on the general public not doing their homework, state officials like Picker tell us CEQA is outdated and needs to be revamped. As someone fighting the decimation of our valuable biological and agricultural resources I can tell you if we lose CEQA we lose our ability as the public to have input and get involved in the planning and land use process.

    SB722 is just another way government is trying to assist corporations over the good of the people. Europe has invested in distributed power and rooftop energy and are now world leaders in solar production. Their citizens can produce their own power and feed it into an energy grid similar to the internet. Make no mistake – utility scale renewable energy = Big Energy and they want to maintain the monopoly they currently enjoy over the publics energy needs.

    Instead of providing stimulus money to start-ups like Solargen, (who is in contract to puchase up to 4 million solar panels from China using ARRA funds rather then a U.S. supplier – defeating the purpose of ARRA funds to stimulate the American economy) the government should start investing in people and infrastructure. The $360 million in stimulus finds Solargen hopes to qualify for could provide power for the entire San Benito County.

    Finally it’s interesting to note: If Solargen succeeds in convincing San Benito officials to approve their project, the project will then go to Fish & Game and Fish & Wildlife for permitting to ‘take’ (i.e. destory) threatened and endangered species, permitting necessary if they hope to build in Panoche Valley. Every indication at this juncture points to those permits being denied. But, all Solargen needs to receive the $360 million in ARRA funds is local San Benito approval. If the two wildlife agencies they deny permitting and shut the project down, Solargen will only have to return 80% of the ARRA funds – leaving they with a cool $72 million to profit from. Not bad for a startup with no experience in solar.

    I only wish that KQED and other media outlets will begin to tell the full story and not just focus on quotes by former Goldman Sachs and Merill Lych VP Michael Peterson who is now CEO of Solargen. KQED printed that he said, “it’s as if God made Panoche Valley to be a solar farm”. What a crock of corporate crap and a disgusting manipulation of people’s belief in their faith. KQED – you can do better!

    1. All of your discussion points add up to why Panoche makes for a good case study, which is partly why we chose it for a two-part radio series. In those reports, I think the various positions for and against were well represented and several of your points were addressed. But comments like yours serve to raise questions that we don’t have time to tackle in our radio reporting, which is what makes this space such a valuable part of the discourse.
      BTW to clarify Peterson’s “God” quote, he was recalling something an engineer reportedly said to him on a visit to the valley. But whatever “God” may have intended, it’ll be an arduous permitting process conducted by mortals that decides the fate of this project, a process that is widely considered to be the most exhaustive in the nation. We’ll be keeping an eye on it for further reporting.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Craig. I apologize for my criticism of KQED and I am very grateful that you’re even covering this issue. It’s hard to educate the public of the huge difference between utility-scale and distributed power, as well as the value of grasslands like Panoche for food production.

        I look forward to reading/hearing more from you on this issue.
        Again, I’m sorry. My dig was towards Peterson and the propaganda campaign he’s waging to try and pass his project thru the planning process. No offense towards you was intended, and I certainly realize there is pressure from Sacramento to cover these stories in a certain way. I assumed KQED had given in to this but your reply speaks otherwise.

  2. Nothing is vulnerable if Proposition 23 passes except for Cap-and-Trade. Everyone fails to recognize that the US EPA adopted findings declaring CO2 a pollutant. The California Air Resources Board and 35 Air Quality Management Districts can all adopt regulations under the Federal Clean Air Act directly regulating CO2 emissions. Most likely scenario if Proposition 23 passes is that ARB reopens all the regulations adopted pursuant AB 32 and revises them to state the authority from the Federal Clean Air Act and US EPA’s findings. Additionally, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and others will also adopt rules regulating CO2 directly.

    RES/RPS will continue through regulation, just not in statute.

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Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter formerly covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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