Proposition 7: Clean energy for California

The Times’ editorial board has long touted, much to my pleasure, the urgent need to transition to a renewable energy future. Although I often agree with The Times on energy issues, I strongly disagree with the editorial board’s position on Proposition 7, the Solar and Clean Energy Act of 2008. The Times recommends a no vote on this potentially ground-breaking measure. My organization has endorsed Proposition 7. We have received no compensation from the campaign, nor will we accept any compensation in the future. We are independent advocates.

The Times and other opponents argue that Proposition 7 would stifle small-scale renewable energy companies -- solar in particular -- because it would forbid projects that generate less than 30 megawatts of power from inclusion in the state’s law that requires all investor-owned utilities to achieve 20% renewable energy by 2010. This law, the Renewables Portfolio Standard, would be amended by Proposition 7. This argument rests, however, on a very poor analysis that ignores standard rules of legal interpretation.

Moreover, the Proposition 7 campaign is on record in court documents stating that the initiative’s authors and supporters have no intent to change current law on energy producers that generate less than 30 megawatts. These statements will carry a lot of weight with agencies and courts in interpreting Proposition 7, the same way legislative history carries a lot of weight for any other law’s implementation.

Even if Proposition 7 did exclude projects under 30 megawatts from the state’s existing laws on renewable energy, it would have no negative impact on the many current state and federal programs that support small renewables. For example, the California Solar Initiative will provide about $3 billion in rebates for small solar projects over the next nine years. There are also federal tax credits. None of these programs would be affected negatively by Proposition 7. In fact, they would benefit because larger renewable projects would help bring technology costs down such that small renewable projects may be cheaper. The anti-Proposition 7 side’s cries that the initiative would devastate small renewable energy companies is hyperbole of the worst sort.

The Times also touts as a better alternative to Proposition 7 the possibility that the Legislature will pass a bill that would require the state to get 33% of its power from renewable energy by 2020. Unfortunately, the latest bill that attempted this change (SB 411) died a few weeks ago in the Legislature. Lawmakers are discussing a new bill for next year, but chances are slim that it would pass in any form that would do much good.

Why my pessimism? The Legislature has a habit of turning good bills into bad ones. SB 411 would have required investor-owned utilities to achieve 33% renewables by 2020, but it also provided a number of off-ramps for noncompliance. Most crucially, it did not include any new tools to achieve the 33% benchmark.

The Times also has a problem with Proposition 7’s provision that the law could only be changed by a two-thirds vote in the Legislature or by another ballot measure. Supporters feel that Proposition 7 is good policy, and as such, there ought to be a high hurdle to change the law. If real problems do crop up in implementing Proposition 7, a two-thirds vote in the Legislature shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve.

Proposition 7 is not perfect, but it is quite good on balance. It would provide substantial new tools for achieving much higher levels of renewable energy use. Proposition 7 would also increase penalties on utilities for noncompliance, in almost all scenarios, by eliminating the cap on fines that the state’s Public Utilities Commission can impose.

The coalition opposing Proposition 7 is impressive; unfortunately, many of its members have not delved into the initiative in sufficient detail. Several of the anti-Proposition 7 groups do not have the necessary background in state energy policy to understand the changes proposed by the measure. Under close scrutiny, almost all of the objections raised by opponents melt away.

Tam Hunt is the energy program director and attorney for the Santa Barbara-based Community Environmental Council. He is also a lecturer on renewable energy law and policy at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara.