Under Air Resource Board rules, passed last year, that raise the bar for utilities from one-fifth to one-third renewable, municipal utilities can still count large hydro as "renewable" — but only for 20 percent of their power and only if they had already counted it earlier. So if a city called its power renewable in 2003, that power is renewable under the law. If it didn't, it's out of luck.
“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less,” Humpty Dumpty told Alice in the children’s classic “Through the Looking Glass.”
Humpty Dumpty was a talking egg in a Victorian storybook. He could just as easily have been a utility lawyer in 21st-century California.
This week, the Redding City Council OK’d a resolution revising its standards for renewable power to comply with the latest rules of the California Air Resource Board.
The good news, for city electric customers, is that Redding Electric Utility meets the standards and won’t need to launch costly new investments in renewable power. At least, not for now. The state changes the law seemingly every six months.
The bad news, for anyone who cares about the English language, common sense or clean energy, is that “renewable” means not quite whatever the city and the Legislature choose it to mean – but pretty close.
When the “renewable portfolio standard” first took effect under a 2002 law, the state allowed utilities to count solar, wind, biomass and geothermal power as “renewable,” as well as electricty from small hydroelectric dams. The threshold for “small” is 30 megawatts, and just for reference Shasta Dam is 22 times that size, at 663 megawatts.
But here’s where it gets tricky: Municipal utilities – like Redding’s – were allowed to count major hydroelectric dams (among other sources) as “renewable” at their discretion, and the City Council did just that. Thanks to declining but still large supplies of hydropower from the federal Central Valley Project, Redding easily meets current state standards.
But the state is tightening its definitions. Under Air Resource Board rules, passed last year, that raise the bar for utilities from one-fifth to one-third renewable, municipal utilities can still count large hydro as “renewable” – but only for 20 percent of their power and only if they had already counted it earlier.
So if a city called its power renewable in 2003, that power is renewable under the law. If it didn’t, it’s out of luck.
A bill that REU Director Paul Hauser predicts is likely to pass the Legislature this year, Senate Bill 23, would remove that exemption. The consistency, unfortunately, would put a costly new burden on Redding ratepayers, as in the coming years Redding Electric would have to find new sources of “renewable” power.
Which makes it a good time to examine once again just what “renewable” means. Whether a dam is large or small, it esentially just harvests rain and gravity – in exhaustible resources – to spin turbines and generate electricity. As long as the sun shines and the wind blows (producing their own renewable power), the planet’s water cycle will keep dropping new precipitation on our mountains and thus recharging the batteries of our reservoirs. No fossil fuels to exhaust. No carbon dioxide to warm the atmosphere.
Do dams create their own environmental problems, by blocking rivers and the fish that rely on them? Yes.
But as Californians are learning all too well, every power source poses its own problems. Large solar arrays cover vast tracts of land – and have drawn lawsuits from environmentalists. Wind turbines mar ridgetops and make hamburger of birds and bats – and have drawn lawsuits from environmentalists. Biomass burners can pollute the air and raises concerns (largely baseless, but still a subject of intense debate) about deforestation – and have drawn lawsuits from environmentalits. New powerlines to link these new remote sources to cities pass through otherwise pristine areas and mar neighborhoods – and have drawn lawsuits from environmentalists. Seeing a pattern here?
There’s no pure and perfect energy source, but if “renewable” means that we can use it this year and next year and for decades to come, and without polluting the air, then our hydroelectric dams – increasingly the bogeyman of environmentalists and a target of removal – deserve a lot more respect. Pretending otherwise is as mad as the Hatter.
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