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During last year's frantic energy struggles, the state...

July 01, 2002

During last year's frantic energy struggles, the state cobbled together costly solutions to keep the lights on and didn't pay much attention to where the energy would come from. Mostly, as it turns out, from natural gas. Aside from being a nonrenewable fossil fuel, natural gas is subject to price swings and perhaps market manipulation. With the crisis under control, the Legislature should focus on increasing California's use of renewable energy.

A hearing is scheduled today on a long-stalled bill, SB 532, by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), that would significantly boost production of renewable energy sources over the next 10 years. Lawmakers should get this bill moving and onto the desk of Gov. Gray Davis for his signature.

Unfortunately, the measure has been held up by public and private electric utilities' demand for a complicated financing mechanism tied to estimates of the future price of natural gas. The utilities argue that such a mechanism would keep down the cost of some renewables.

As one sponsor of the bill notes, the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, where the bill languishes, is a "hotbed of utilities' influence." But utilities surely recall the skyrocketing gas prices of two years ago, a chief cause of the energy crisis.

Because of uncertainties about cost, the utilities are reluctant to sign long-term contracts for renewable energy, primarily solar, wind, geothermal and biomass using agricultural waste. But the generally smaller firms that produce this power need the contracts to finance installations.

The goal of the Sher bill--to have 20% of the state's electric power coming from renewable sources at the end of 10 years--is certainly realistic. Southern California Edison gets 12% to 14% of its power from renewable sources now, Pacific Gas & Electric 10% and Sacramento's municipal utility about 10%. Sempra, serving the San Diego area and parts of Orange County, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power lag far behind.

The utilities and renewable energy suppliers need to work out a simple funding mechanism that would be administered by the Public Utilities Commission, which has about $70 million a year available to subsidize renewables.

Renewable energy enjoys strong public support. The utilities lost a lot of public trust during the energy crisis. Sher's measure would give them a boost, and utilities and lawmakers should embrace it, not complicate it to death.

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