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California governor vows to ‘crush’ foes of renewable energy

LOS ANGELES – California Gov. Jerry Brown yesterday promised to overcome those working to block widespread renewable energy.

“When local communities try to block installation of solar like they did in San Luis Obispo, we act to overcome the opposition,” Brown (D) said, referring to the city where environmental groups have been protesting two large-scale solar plants over environmental and endangered species concerns.

“In Oakland I learned that some kind of opposition you have to crush,” the former Oakland mayor said. “You can talk, but you have to move forward.”

Brown’s goal, being fleshed out this week at an invitation-only conference at the University of California, Los Angeles, is to build 12,000 megawatts of distributed renewable energy, building on and extending former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s target of 5,000 MW by 2020.

Local, small-scale solar, biomass and other renewables avoid the need for expensive transmission lines, Brown said, and, at least in theory, don’t take as long to build as traditional utility-scale projects.

The two-day conference at UCLA is a far cry from Republican Schwarzenegger’s star-studded events that focused on brokering “subnational” agreements.

This conference is limited to 250 invitation-only participants, and the panels have titles like “Consistent, Effective and Efficient Building Permits.” That discussion is being led by Ethan Sprague, director of government affairs at SunRun, who is also releasing a study finding that streamlining permitting could lower the cost of residential solar by $5 billion in California over the next eight years.

But like Schwarzenegger, Brown sees California’s labyrinthine permitting and planning processes as a key target.

Schwarzenegger in 2008 proposed an “energy strike team” to expedite transmission line construction (ClimateWire, Nov. 18, 2008).

Schwarzenegger often drew on his decades of experience as a Hollywood action hero, while Brown in his first energy policy speech since taking office based his rhetoric on his 25 years as a California governor, mayor, secretary of state and attorney general.

Brown’s foes are also similar to Schwarzenegger’s: environmental groups – at times overzealous, in his view – and the morass of permitting authorities that can bog a project down for years.

California’s 58 counties, more than 400 cities and innumerable planning commissions provide too many opportunities to object to projects, he said.

“Our state of participation is such that any old fool can object to anything, but restricting participation is very difficult; it has the feeling of being undemocratic,” Brown said. “But if you let every person, no matter how benighted, play a role, you don’t get anything done.”

The enemy is diffuse and multifarious, he said.

“This is not going to be the [California] Energy Commission. This is going to be the [county] board of supervisors, the planning department, one person inside the planning department in some small city somewhere,” he said. “We need a centralized base of arbitrary intervention to overcome the distributed political power that is blocking this process.

“Like barnacles on a ship, all these rules take on little sub-rules and they metastasize, and that has to be countered, and that countering can be a brutal process.”

‘Find a path through the thicket’

Brown in his speech didn’t mince words.

“There’s technical problems, financial problems, regulatory problems, coordination problems,” he said. “The fact is, the regulations are so embedded in our culture or legal system that to overcome it is difficult.”

The solution might lie in simply powering through them somehow, he said.

“Every law has a certain logic that continues to expand its reach,” he said. “The only way to stop it is to stop it, to intervene in some way.” New laws probably aren’t the answer, he said.

Brown’s office is working on a model permit that can be shared among local planning offices, he said.

Policymakers and business leaders flanking Brown agreed that permitting was a major issue.

California Public Utilities Commissioner Mark Ferron, whom Brown appointed in March, got more specific, pointing to a flawed state-level process for smaller electricity projects to link to the distribution grid. “Permitting presents the most significant challenge to a viable project,” he said.

David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, also highlighted customers’ reluctance to commit to rooftop solar and other locally owned generation. “The thing we have to recognize is that it’s got to be consumer-driven,” he said. “We need to get someone to buy those 12,000 megawatts. You can’t exercise leadership if people aren’t paying attention.”

But some audience members maintained customer demand is already strong and that small companies just need better-written regulations. Existing programs like the CPUC’s Renewable Auction Mechanism are balanced in favor of larger companies that can easily submit the lowest bids, said Sheila Bowers, a member of Solar Done Right, an advocacy think tank.

“To the extent utilities and big energy companies get to provide all that, democratic ownership is foreclosed,” she said.

Brown urged attendees to take heart.

“Your job is to find the path through the thicket, and on the other side, the lion will lie down with the lamb and we’ll turn swords into plowshares,” he said.

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