Renewable energy: Pass SB 722

It is becoming an annual tradition: Every year we plead for a bill that would wean the state’s utilities off dirty electricity generated from fossil fuels, a politically popular measure that nonetheless has hit a wall in Sacramento. Once again, a key renewable-power bill — a priority for environmental advocates and green businesses statewide — is making its way through legislative committees. Like the riots that follow Lakers championship victories or the ruinous wildfires that plague our hillsides every fall, the bill’s yearly failure is a ritual we’d happily put to rest.

Since 2007, state Sen. Joe Simitian (D- Palo Alto) has been introducing bills aimed at requiring California to get 33% of its power from renewable sources such as the sun and wind by 2020. In 2008 his bill got past the Senate, only to stall in the Assembly. Last year it passed both houses but was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. On Thursday, a new version tailored to pass muster with the governor — who thought the 2009 bill imposed overly tight restrictions on the amount of renewable power that utilities could buy from out of state — was approved by the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee. But Schwarzenegger still isn’t pleased; he issued a statement saying he couldn’t sign Simitian’s bill, SB 722, unless it streamlines the permitting process for generation projects and transmission lines.

Schwarzenegger’s continuing obstructionism is odd given that he claims to be a big backer of renewable power. After vetoing Simitian’s bill last year, he issued an executive order imposing the same 33% mandate. Unfortunately, though, the order means little because it could easily be overturned by a future governor.

Schwarzenegger isn’t wrong about the permitting process. Under current laws, getting government approval to build wind farms or solar plants, or the power lines to carry their electricity to far-flung cities, is a long and arduous task. That makes it far less likely that the renewable standard could be met within a decade. But such matters could easily be taken up in a separate bill. What’s important right now is getting legislative approval that would provide certainty for utilities and power generators, thus encouraging them to make the needed investments. One governor’s promise isn’t enough to build confidence in a 10-year program.

California cannot achieve its ambitious goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions without this standard, which is why the Legislature should pass Simitian’s bill and Schwarzenegger should sign it. SB 722 would clean the air, produce jobs and make the state a player in the global race to dominate the green-technology industry. And we really don’t want to have to write this editorial again next year.