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Sacramento's power failure

Legislative dysfunction has short-circuited a popular renewable-energy measure time and again.

August 19, 2009

Two years ago, a bill that would have required California to get more power from clean, renewable sources such as the sun and wind stalled in the Legislature. Last year, lawmakers whiffed again. If they get a third strike on this overwhelmingly popular measure in the coming weeks, let's say we throw the bums out.

Currently, investor-owned utilities in California are required to obtain 20% of their power from renewable sources by the end of 2010. That's a good start, but it doesn't go far enough. The state is under a mandate to cut its greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020, and in order to accomplish that, it must get at least a third of its electricity from clean sources, according to the Air Resources Board. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Democrat in the Legislature who doesn't embrace the 33% by 2020 goal, along with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Public Utilities Commission, the green lobby and, according to polls, the state's voters. So why is it so hard to accomplish politically?

Two bills before the Legislature -- SB 14 and AB 64 -- would set the 33% standard. They're very similar to a bill that was passed last year by the state Senate but that fell victim to end-of-session political infighting and never reached a vote in the Assembly. With lawmakers distracted by the state's financial difficulties, the renewable-power standard could fall through the cracks again, even though it is widely considered this year's most important piece of environmental legislation and has been subjected to intense committee scrutiny since March.

Utilities are lobbying to subvert the bills. Pacific Gas & Electric, which is looking to build dams in British Columbia and transmission lines to send the resulting hydropower to California, is trying to amend the bills so that this power would count toward its 33% mandate. That would slow development of renewable power here and boost environmentally irresponsible projects in Canada. Also up for negotiation is the amount of credit utilities can get for buying clean power that's generated out of state -- say, from solar power plants in Nevada. Such projects should be encouraged, but shouldn't count for as much as in-state generation.

Democratic lawmakers have some excuse for driving the state to the brink of insolvency during this year's budget negotiations: Budgets have to be approved by a two-thirds vote, and minority Republicans refused to compromise on a taxing-and-spending package. That doesn't apply to the renewable-power mandate, which requires only a majority vote. The fact that Democrats find it so hard to move a bill that's almost universally favored by Democrats says something about the dominant party's dysfunction.

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