California's poorest county wants a bigger share of the state's $16-billion wholesale electricity market.
Imperial County, which stretches east of San Diego County to Arizona, is seeking a special deal from the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown that would require electric utilities, such as Southern California Edison Co., to buy extra alternative energy from geothermal power plants that are run by naturally occurring steam from deep in the earth.
The steam already is used to drive turbines that make electricity near the Salton Sea.
"Geothermal is the most reliable energy source out there," said state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego), whose district includes Imperial County. He is the author of the bill requiring utilities to contract to buy up to 500 megawatts of electricity by 2024.
The purchases would spur investments that could inject as much as $3 billion into the Imperial County economy over the next 30 years, Hueso predicted.
Imperial County companies already produce about 600 megawatts of geothermal power, and they have the potential to more than quadruple that output, local boosters say.
The bill, SB 1139, is being pushed by labor groups, including electricians and pipe fitters, because it could create thousands of good-paying union jobs to build and operate new power plants and transmission lines.
Hueso's proposal is opposed by statewide business lobbies, investor-owned utilities and consumer advocates.
Developers of other types of nonpolluting, renewable power — wind, solar, biomass and even rival geothermal operators in Northern California — are screaming foul. The proposal, they contend, would cost ratepayers $8 billion over 20 years and undercut California's 3-year-old renewable-energy law.
"This does an end run around the competitive process, where all costs and benefits are looked at and evaluated," said Nancy Rader, director of the California Wind Energy Assn.
Imperial officials say they deserve a break. Their county suffers from the lowest per-capita income in the state and California's highest unemployment rate at 22% in June.
"We've got a great resource here," said Timothy Kelley, president of the Imperial County Economic Development Corp.
Bomber tax break
Looks like aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp. is getting in on the tax-break action.
This week California lawmakers and the governor plan to rush through a bill to offer the military contractor the same financial incentive that they gave last month to rival Lockheed Martin Corp. The bill is expected to win Assembly approval Monday.
Both the earlier measure and a similar Northrop proposal, SB 718, would offer the chance for up to $420 million in corporate income-tax credits. The incentive would kick in should either company wind up as part of a successful bid for a $55-billion contract to build a next-generation stealth bomber for the Air Force. Both companies have said that if they win the contract, California workers will play a big role in building the planes.