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California's Renewable Energy and Alternative Energy Initiatives

      California's November 2008 ballot measures that dealt with our energy crisis were both defeated.  Proposition 7 was presented as an urgent answer for California to address the serious problems of global warming and climate change.  The Proposition noted that California has the renewable resources to meet all the energy needs of California, including solar energy.  The measure accelerated the timetable requiring California's utilities to convert to renewable sources of electricity and outlined its road to energy independence by building enormous solar plants in the desert and the transmission infrastructure to deliver the power hundreds of miles.

Opponents, including some environmental groups, worked against the Proposition 7.  They argued that it provided the wrong solution, however, there was no better alternative on the ballot so that an opportunity to advance clean energy and renewable energy in California was lost.

The Proposition was positive in terms of accelerating the schedule regarding the utilities' conversion to renewable energy sources.  However, Proposition 7 offered numerous changes to the Public Utilities Code and Public Resources Code that mandated the construction of giant solar factories in the desert and massive new power transmission infrastructure to connect the new facilities to the urban centers.  Proposition 7 offered a vision of transforming California's energy economy through a centralized model of renewable energy.

The distributed and centralized models of renewable energy development have dramatically different consequences for energy security, economic control, and environmental impact.

The Distributed Model

      Solar panels covering a portion of California's residential and commercial rooftops could supply most of the electricity used in the state.  Energy production and distribution would be decentralized, thereby reducing the demand on the existing transmission infrastructure and eliminating the bottlenecks in the system.  California's main transmission line which allowed electricity to travel from the north to the south has not been improved for many years and has become a bottleneck point which limited the amount of power that could be sent south.  Ownership of generation capacity would be spread across millions of families and businesses.  Since solar panels are built upon rooftop spaces, land use demands may be negligible.

The Centralized Model

      Giant solar-thermal plants covering hundreds of square miles of desert land in Southern California, together with hundreds of miles of new power lines, would supply the bulk of the electricity used in California.  Energy production and distribution would be more centralized than it is today which could increase vulnerability to power disruption.  Ownership of power generation assets would be further concentrated.  The enormous footprints of the solar units and supporting infrastructure would require permanent conversion of huge tracts of land.  Proposition 7 mandated the centralized model instead of the distributed model.  California has adopted an energy quota system known as Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that the initiative relied on to accomplish the conversion to renewables.

The Renewable Portfolio Standard
      More than half of the American states have implemented the RPS quota system that requires each state's utility entities to obtain certain percentages of their electricity from renewable sources by target dates.  California has already implemented its RPS.  Proposition 7 attempted to accelerate its current schedule with two new quotas:  40 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2025.

Proposition 7 had clear goals, but arguably did not offer a satisfactory program for achieving those goals.  It relied primarily on only one mechanism for enforcing compliance with the RPS:  imposition of fines against utilities proportional to the shortfall of its RPS quotas.

Levying fines would be the responsibility of the governor-appointed Energy Commission that would be required to review a list of factors that might excuse non-compliance.  Proposition 7 reduced the non-compliance fees previously in place and made the fees discretionary in that they could be payable up to the amount of the shortfall in kilowatt hours multiplied by one cent per kilowatt-hour.

The maximum fees under Proposition 7 were low so that there would be a risk that the utilities might simply pay them and disregard the RPS targets.  One cent per kilowatt-hour is less than one tenth of the retail rates and when rates increase due to the shortage of fossil fuels, the percentage would be even smaller.

Many in California have questioned the value of the RPS approach.  RPS measures the fraction of the retail energy sales by utilities' that are derived from renewable sources.  Therefore, the RPS does not evaluate the progress toward renewable energy achieved by growth in micro-generation, gains in generation efficiency or reductions in demand.  There are inherent inefficiencies in the centralized energy economy.  As a result, the shift from fossil fuels to on-site micro-generation may be more efficient in the long term for the utilities' business instead of replacement by green renewable energy sources.

Proposition 7 focused upon industrial-scale energy generation by giving it special subsidies and by excluding micro-producers from counting toward the RPS.  Proposition 7 required subsidies for building the huge new power lines that would be essential to carry electricity from the newly-built remote solar factories to the urban centers.  That transmission infrastructure would be a huge undertaking involving the purchase of development rights to a large number of land parcels, including some expensive lands, using eminent domain and substantial funds.

Solar & Wind Energy Alternatives

  Photovoltaics (PV) is the field of research and development related to the use of solar cells for energy through conversion of sunlight into electricity.  Due to the growing demand for clean sources of energy, the manufacture of solar cells and photovoltaic arrays has increased dramatically in recent years.

    Photovoltaic production has doubled every two years increasing by an average of 48 percent each year since 2002, thereby making it the fastest-growing energy technology in the world.  At the end of 2007, according to preliminary data, cumulative global production was 12,400 megawatts.  Roughly 90% of this generating capacity consists of grid-tied electrical systems.  Such installations may be ground-mounted and occasionally integrated with farming and grazing or built into the roof or walls of a building known as Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV).

     Financial incentives, such as preferential feed-in tariffs for solar-generated electricity and net metering, have supported solar PV installations in many countries including United States, Germany and Japan. 

      Net metering involves a policy that allows homeowners to receive the value of the electricity that their solar energy system produces.  Net metering refers to the method of accounting for a PV system's electricity production.  For instance, homeowners with PV systems may offset their electric bill with any excess electricity they produce.  As the homeowner's PV system produces electricity, the kilowatts are used first to meet the homeowner's electric requirements in the home.  If more electricity is produced from the PV system than the home needs, the extra kilowatts are fed into the utility grid.

Failure of Proposition 7
  Proposition 7 relied on the regulatory framework of California's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) stating the percentages of retail sales of electricity from renewable sources, i.e. solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal by target dates of 40 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2025.  Proposition 7 tapped into widespread public support for profound action to transform the energy economy, but it was unsuccessful.

      Organizations allied in opposition to Proposition 7 included environmentalists, cities, renewable energy companies, labor associations.  Unfortunately, there was no affirmative ballot presented by the opponents of Proposition 7.

      Proposition 7 involved a complex series of changes to the Public Utilities Code and Public Resources Code that would grant control of the emerging renewable energy economy to a select few entities.  Most opponents opined that the Proposition 7 might injure renewable energy development in California in the long term because it reserved its benefits for "solar and clean energy plants" which were defined as those with "a generating capacity of 30 megawatts or more," and it required utilities to enter into 20-year contracts with energy providers.

      The Proposition excluded micro-producers, such as owners of rooftop solar panels who are currently energizing the renewable energy conversion in California from inclusion in the definition of plants and energy providers.  Environmentally friendly measures such as distributed generation and demand reduction (incentives for consumers to reduce energy use) were disregarded.  On the other hand, the Proposition allowed, 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 .."

      Proposition 7 mentioned that distributed generation should be considered as an alternative to the building of transmission facilities, except when such facilities are needed for "solar and clean energy plants".  In short, building industrial-scale solar facilities was preferred over distributed solar, despite the fact that it is more costly, less reliable and less environmentally friendly.

      The theme of Proposition 7 was to focus renewable energy development on the centralized model underlying the coal, oil and nuclear industries.  Sunlight and wind are abundant and current technologies that permit the capture, storage, and exchange of that energy by individuals and communities have been improving rapidly.  Renewable energy facilitates the democratization of the energy market.

      Currently, there are disincentives against micro-power generation such as the inability of producers to sell their surplus power back to the utilities.  However, micro-power already provides 200 megawatts of renewable generation in California.  Some experts have predicted that the price of solar micro-power generation may drop to below grid parity with retail electricity rates in the next ten years.  This, combined with changes to metering policies, could promote expansion of California's distributed solar market above its current 30 percent annual growth rate.

      There are several long-term advantages to the decentralized renewable energy market in California.  Millions of individuals and businesses will own power generation assets instead of a few large corporations.  Micro-power infrastructure will be largely immune from the disruption and manipulation that Californians experienced in 2001. The infrastructure will use existing rooftop space, not occupy pristine desert lands.

      The centralized model is applied to clean renewable energy resources in order to accommodate the profit motive.  Controlling scarce resources is the fundamental system of generating wealth and power.  Public awareness of the benefits of renewable energy sources needs to be increased in order to take advantage of the ubiquitous nature of renewable energy resources.  There is no environmental benefit to subsidize the construction of massive infrastructure to control the collection and distribution of renewable energy.  Proposition 7 would have irreparably reduced investment in distributed renewables in the energy market.  The centralized infrastructure model would serve only to provide profit centers for a few corporations, not to solve our energy problems.

      The centralized paradigm underpinning Proposition 7 defined public resources like sunlight, wind and geothermal energies as set out in zones controlled by major corporations.  Proposition 7 would have shifted the abuses of one set of entities i.e. California's public and private utilities to a set of other entities such as out of state energy businesses.  Due to the inefficiencies in production overhead and transmission, Proposition 7 would have increased California's carbon footprint and exacerbated the global warming and climate change problems.  Specifically, its renewable energy development paradigm was not energy positive for multiple reasons:

* It relied on RPS quotas which do not accurately measure carbon reduction;

* It depended on a small, insufficient discretionary penalty structure to enforce RPS compliance.

* It excluded proven, cost-effective methods of reducing the carbon footprint of the energy market  i.e. conversion to distributed generation and demand reduction.

* It mandated the acquisition of a substantial land resources for the obsolete infrastructure that has a wide carbon footprint that was not factored into the RPS.

      California deserves much better than Proposition 7.  We definitely should not return to outmoded concepts that do not offer a long-term solutions to our global energy needs.  At the very least, substantial resources should be committed to making distributed energy part of the energy solution in California.


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