Sacramento stalls on renewable energy

California is seen as a national, even worldwide, pioneer on environmental issues such as fighting global warming and pursuing renewable energy. But somewhere along the trail, the state has broken a couple of wheels on its Conestoga wagon.

Four other states -- Texas, Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado -- are adding new renewable energy projects faster than California, according to an analysis by the advocacy group Environment California. As utilities crawl rather than sprint toward meeting the state’s goal of deriving 20% of its power from solar, wind and geothermal sources by 2010, an effort to extend the mandate and remove some of the barriers to accomplishing it has stalled in the Legislature.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backs a bill that would require the state to get 33% of its power from renewable sources by 2020, as does Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), and the concept enjoys overwhelming support among the Democrats who make up the majority of both houses of the Legislature. What’s more, it would be all but impossible for the state to meet its goal of cutting greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020 without the 33% standard. Yet despite the importance of the issue and its powerful backing, it apparently falls so low on the priority list for Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) that she has allowed the bill, SB 411, to gather dust in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where it will almost certainly die unless there is immediate action.

Just as mystifying as the lack of urgency on the part of Bass and other Assembly leaders is the reaction of the state’s utilities, many of which oppose SB 411 because they don’t like some of its rules or think it would benefit their competitors. But if they don’t like the bill, they positively loathe Proposition 7. The initiative on the November ballot requires that the state get 50% of its power from renewable sources by 2025, a goal the utilities claim would be devastatingly expensive to meet. Yet polls show that Proposition 7 enjoys strong support among voters, and that support will only grow stronger if state lawmakers prove unwilling or unable to act; the smartest move by the utilities would be to lobby hard for SB 411.

More important than the political considerations is the fact that another year’s delay in approving the renewable standard will only make it more difficult and costly to achieve. Bass is rightly focusing on getting the state budget passed, but she also needs to get busy moving the session’s most crucial bills, such as SB 411, before it’s too late.