A year ago, Sen. Anthony Cannella tried to get the Legislature to change the definition of renewable energy to include hydro power. He got nowhere. This year the Ceres Republican is taking a more modest approach – trying to get hydro power factored into the new state mandate requiring utilities to get a third of their power from renewable sources by 2020.
If he and his co-sponsor, Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen of Modesto, are successful, it will mean some relief for residents and businesses all over California.
Electricity bills are going up as utilities move to meet the new state demands. The reason is simple: It costs significantly more to produce electricity from “green” sources, such as solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal and biomass plants than it does from “brown” sources, such as coal- and natural-gas powered plants. Natural gas plants produce almost 57 percent of California’s power.
One of the cheapest ways to produce electricity is with falling water – as is done at hydroelectric facilities throughout the Sierra. And it is a very green way, too.
But back in 2002, when the Legislature defined the Renewables Portfolio Standard, it deliberately excluded large hydro facilities, such as the Don Pedro powerhouse owned by the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation districts.
We backed Cannella’s 2011 bill and we support this version as well, for several key reasons:
• Common sense: The federal government counts hydro power as a renewable energy source and California counts small hydro plants, those producing 30 megawatts or less electricity, as renewable power. It is illogical that the state does not count large hydro as renewable.
• Helping consumers: The push to go green, while appealing, is putting a big financial strain on Californians at a time when they’re struggling to pay their bills. In the Modesto Irrigation District, the bills are5 to 7 percent higher because of these renewable mandates, according to General Manager Allen Short. Using data provided by the districts, Cannella’s office pegs the higher costs at $178 a year for an MID customer, $273.50 a year for a Turlock Irrigation District customer and $433 a year for a Merced Irrigation District customer.
This is not just a valley issue, however. Most utilities get power from hydro. Southern California Edison provides electricity to nearly 14 million people in 11 counties. Its massive Big Creek Hydroelectric System, with nine powerhouses and 27 dams, accounts for 20 percent of SCE’s owned power generation capacity.
• A reasonable compromise: Last year’s legislation proposed to simply count hydro as part of the 33 percent mandate.
Under this year’s revised bill hydro would be factored into the formula. For example: If a utility gets 10 percent of its electricity from power, then that 10 percent would be removed from the calculation and the renewable energy mandate would apply to the other 90 percent.
Even with this revision, we anticipate Cannella will have a hard time getting his Senate Bill 971 past the Democrats who control Sacramento. Cannella said Monday that he has no Democratic co-sponsors for his bill, although he said some have at least open minds on the idea.
What could make the difference are the voices of everyday Californians, who are getting a painful taste of the cost of renewable energy. We hope consumer advocates will join businesses and others supporting the bill.
SB 971 is a good compromise. It doesn’t eliminate the 33 percent renewable energy mandate, but appropriately allows hydropower – one of the oldest and truest green sources – to be factored in.
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