Missed opportunity to invest in renewable energy, groups say | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Missed opportunity to invest in renewable energy, groups say

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Nearly all of the electricity California plans to buy with $43 billion over the next two decades will come from power plants that run on natural gas, the fossil fuel that made power bills rise dramatically last winter.

As more details of contracts to buy power have come to light, backers of renewable energy say Gov. Gray Davis missed the chance to avoid depending on a fuel that must be imported from other states at the highest prices in the country.

Davis should have sunk that money into making more electricity with the state’s abundant sunlight, wind, biomass and geothermal energies, say proponents ranging from the California Public Interest Research Group to the chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee.

”The opportunities are so phenomenal and it’s so pathetic to watch the politicians behave as usual,” said Charles Kalish, with the San Francisco-based Citizens Power Lobby.

The state also could have installed solar panels on its buildings and replaced residents’ old appliances with energy efficient ones to conserve much of the electricity it has been forced to buy, Kalish said.

”Just as the United States says it should be energy independent, California should make its singular goal to be energy independent,” he said.

Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey and chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, said current utility rates may not cover the cost of buying natural gas if prices rise once again. That could force the state to issue another electric rate hike.

However, Steve Maviglio, a Davis spokesman, said the state Department of Water and Power – which since January has bought electricity for the customers of three financially troubled utilities – received few bids from renewable power providers. Alternative energy currently supplies up to a third of the state’s electricity.

”Companies need to bid and as far as the governor’s concerned, bring it on,” Maviglio said. ”We would love to have more renewables as part of our energy mix, but they have to bid, and I think most of them get a better deal with the utilities.”

Maviglio also said the state cannot build its own power plants until it creates a power authority in August. However, Davis has authorized millions of dollars of incentives for local governments, homes and businesses to install solar panels, windmills and other renewable power catchers themselves.

The city of Vallejo recently signed a letter of intent to install windmills to catch the stiff breeze atop its hills. Alameda County is installing the nation’s largest solar panel on the roof of Dublin’s Santa Rita Jail, and Simi Valley is considering setting up an incentive plan of its own to provide tax breaks for developers who include solar energy systems in new housing projects.

Those are steps in the right direction, said Elizabeth Jones, San Francisco campaign coordinator with CalPIRG. But the state should have done more to get renewable contracts and to stop supporting power companies it thinks have overcharged for their electricity when supplies were low, the group said in a report released Tuesday.

”Dirty fossil fuel is not only a limited resource, it’s also contributing to the price gouging that’s affecting the state,” Jones said.

Jones said CalPIRG is working with Sen. Byron Sher, D-Stanford, to require all power suppliers to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2010.

”The governor’s very proud of the role renewables play in our energy mix and we’re anxious to get more of them into our grid,” Maviglio said.

Another threat to renewable energy was delayed a second time by state power regulators Tuesday. The Public Utilities Commission was expected to decide whether to allow Californians to continue shopping for their electricity the same way they shop for long distance phone service, buying directly from the providers.

Without the continuation of so-called direct access – a cornerstone of the state’s efforts to deregulate – new green energy suppliers will not survive, said PUC Commissioner Richard Bilas.

Rick Counihan, vice president of Green Mountain Energy, said he still gets plenty of calls from customers who want to sign up with the green energy provider.

But without knowing if regulators will allow choice to continue, Green Mountain can’t afford to risk buying a supply of electricity. And without electricity, it can’t accept new customers who want to switch from their utilities.

”I think you get the most benefit for the most Californians if you let them pick what’s best for them,” Counihan said.

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