By Kathleen Connell
March 8, 2014 (San Diego's East County) - The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will soon make a decision on how to replace the power from San Onofre. This is a decision with consequences for generations to come. The choice is local clean energy such as rooftop solar, energy efficiency, and conservation or natural gas power plants, i.e., fossil fuel generation. Local clean energy fights climate change, doesn’t pollute our air, already supports hundreds of well-paying local jobs, and lowers electricity bills. Natural gas power plants ramp up greenhouse gases, worsen air quality, average only 10-20 permanent employees, and raise electricity bills for all of us because they are funded by ratepayers and cost anywhere from $1 billion to $5 billion each. And we are shackled to these monuments of the past for decades.
SDG&E, of course, would like to build more gas plants and accompanying infrastructure like transmission lines because their 20th century business model, which they expect us to accommodate, depends on it. In an equally myopic form of behavior, they consistently push for legislation and policies at the state capitol and CPUC, respectively, that attack rooftop solar. When he recently resigned from the CPUC’s governing body due to poor health, Commissioner Mark Ferron had this to say in his final report to fellow commissioners: “. . . I suspect that they [utilities] would still dearly like to strangle rooftop solar if they could.”
SDG&E has been repeating one word over and over again to lock up support for more gas plants. The word is blackout and it strikes fear in the hearts of Chamber of Commerce leaders and many elected officials, from city council members all the way up to the governor who can’t help but remember what happened to Gray Davis as a result of the statewide electricity crisis. Something historic just happened, however, that debunks SDG&E’s prophecy of doom. Last month the CPUC issued a “proposed” decision on San Onofre replacement power. For the first time ever for a decision of this type, it did not insist that gas plants be in the mix. It states: “We will not require any specific incremental procurement from gas-fired resources. This means that all incremental procurement as a result of this decision may be from preferred resources.” Translation: all of the energy needed to replace San Onofre can come from clean (preferred) resources like energy efficiency and rooftop solar because the lights will stay on without more gas plants. We have known that this was the case for some time—there haven’t been any San Onofre related blackouts since it went down two years ago. This new declaration by the CPUC should finally put it to rest for those that have taken SDG&E at their word despite all the evidence to the contrary.
There is a weak spot in the proposed decision, however, that is of concern. The decision unequivocally states that additional gas plants are not necessary yet it doesn’t completely shut the door on them. SDG&E may apply to fulfill a portion of the need with “any source,” which includes both clean and dirty energy. If given the opportunity, SDG&E will certainly ignore the public good and seek more gas plants. Why give them this chance? In his final report, CPUC Commissioner Ferron issued the warning that, “. . . the Commission will come under intense pressure to use this authority to protect the interest of the utilities over those of consumers and potential self-generators, all in the name of addressing exaggerated concerns about grid stability, cost and fairness. You—my fellow Commissioners—all must be bold and forthright in defending and strengthening our state’s commitment to clean and distributed energy generation." Distributed energy generation means rooftop solar and other small scale generation rather than utility scale projects.
The full commission is scheduled to vote on San Onofre replacement power on March 13. We ask the commissioners to heed their former colleague’s call to defend local clean energy by shutting the door all the way on more fossil fuel power plants.
Prof. Kathleen Connell serves on the Steering Committee for Power with the Sun, a program of the Sierra Club San Diego Chapter.
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