OPINION by RICHARD SCHMIDT
With the calendar running downhill to year’s end, the city of San Luis Obispo still hasn’t told us much about our New Year’s change of electricity providers, which they claim is a “choice” we made, despite our not knowing we made it.
So that means curious folk, like me, have to turn over rocks to see what’s there. After much rock turning, I have updates to my previous article on this, and none of what I’ve found supports the city’s carney-barker salvation theology preaching that switching from PG&E to Monterey Bay Community Power (MBCP) will save the earth from global warming or anything else.
In fact, it may greatly complicate saving the earth.
MBCP is a community choice aggregator (CCA) – a public agency that buys wholesale electricity and resells it to us for community benefit. A standard rationale for CCAs is they are the way for us to demand and get carbon-free power. The city’s carney-barker preaching about MBCP emphasizes this point.
The problem is that’s somewhere between deceptive and untrue. While MBCP does provide clean power, so does PG&E, whose standard power mix is already nearly 80 percent carbon free, with the remainder coming from natural gas. Gas emits carbon into the atmosphere, but at a fairly low rate compared to other fossil alternatives – and PG&E is under state mandate to eliminate gas-fired electricity. Any carbon superiority MBCP might claim is thus small – certainly not enough to determine the fate of the earth – and temporary.
It is even possible, under a scenario where MBCP customers use more carbon-free electricity than MBCP expected and purchased, that the excess, purchased on the electric “spot market,” may not be carbon free.
A related city claim about MBCP is it provides a “significant increase in renewable energy generation.” At present, this is flat-out untrue: last year MBCP got 34 percent of its power from renewables, the year before PG&E’s standard mix had 33 percent — they are tied.
Both utilities are committed to growing their renewable percentages, but it is likely MBCP, due to serving new territory in SLO and possibly Santa Barbara counties, may see a near-term decrease in its renewable percentage as its available renewables are diluted by larger overall sales.
MBCP offers an added-cost upgrade to 100 percent renewable power (as opposed to its standard “carbon-free” power), but so does PG&E. With greenie enthusiasm about MBCP’s renewables, one might imagine this 100% renewable option would be a popular way to show love for Mother Earth. But it’s not. In 2018 MBCP’s 100 percent renewable package accounted for a mere .16 percent of its power sales.
Regular MBCP power – the kind with 34 percent renewables – is two thirds large scale hydroelectric. Under a quirk of California law, large hydro is not considered “renewable.” That’s because regulators want to expand solar and wind capacity, and feared if they counted large hydro as renewable, utilities would grab existing hydro from the Pacific Northwest instead of creating renewables in California.
That’s exactly what MBCP has done to achieve its 100 percent carbon-free power portfolio. Sixty-six percent of its power comes from hydro that’s been around for years. Prior to MBCP gaining access to it, somebody else had access to it. So, one begins to ponder what this means. Is there actual good to the earth from MBCP having this hydro power in its portfolio instead of somebody else having it in theirs. Who had it before, and might they have had to turn to fossil-fuel electricity to make up for lost hydro?
I put this question to MBCP, and while their response isn’t totally satisfying, they assure me they did not outbid some unfortunate poorer power buyer, but that power generators approached them and offered MBCP hydro no other customer was taking.
Another thing the city claims for the MBCP change is it will save us money. Well, yes, but not much. MBCP charges what PG&E would have charged us and “promises” the spend-and-save gimmick of a 3 percent rebate at the end of each year. In my earlier article, I described how this rebate is dependent upon revenues being sufficient to support it – information then easily found on MBCP’s website, but on their current website I can no longer find it.
Before you get excited by a “3 percent rebate,” however, know that it applies only to energy charges, not to your entire electric bill. On MBCP’s website there’s a sample bill which shows this breakdown:
Current PG&E electric delivery charges $109.14
Monterey Bay Community Power electric generation charges $44.37
The total bill is $153.51, the 3 percent rebate on $44.37 is $1.33, which is less than .9 percent of this bill.
Future pricing can be tricky, and hard to predict, no matter where we get our electricity.
As I write, a CCA pricing mess is unfolding in Ventura County, where a number of enthusiastic cities opted for the 100 percent renewable level from their local CCA. Apparently they didn’t understand what they were signing up for, and now some cities find their own power bills so unaffordable they are returning their city business to Southern California Edison, which unlike PG&E provides carbon-dirty power. This cost issue apparently affects only large volume users, not homeowners.
Something that’s disturbing about the Ventura County situation, however, is the reaction of CCA advocates: instead of admitting a problem that needs both explanation and fixing, they dismiss price instability with a shrug and call it CCA “growing pains.”
Our city’s salvation theologians would have us believe MBCP is a radical change agent creating more renewable electric generation by working to develop new solar and wind power, even though all California utilities are in this venture together. MBCP is currently behind a new wind operation in New Mexico and two solar plants in the San Joaquin Valley.
There’s also a potentially huge off-shore “Morro Bay” wind project MBCP is interested in seeing built – the quotes because it’s actually 30 miles off Cambria-San Simeon.
New Times had a weird story about this last month. Fourteen companies have indicated interest in leasing federal offshore waters for wind turbines, but the story was about only one of those, Castle Wind, and the kiss-up politicking taking place to advance its lease bid. The story made it sound as if all that remains is processing permits and the project’s a go.
A more grounded story in the Monterey County Weekly called the project a “moon shot.”
New Times’ slant is all the more surprising since it’s no secret a team of Cal Poly physicists and biologists have been studying the feasibility of offshore wind, and an article in the current Cal Poly Magazine summarizes their findings for this project: potentially huge environmental impacts, and technological challenges yet unsolved.
According to the article, existing offshore wind turbines elsewhere are in shallow waters and rest on the sea floor. The offshore site here, however, is in water more than 1,000 feet deep. To mitigate environmental impacts and cut costs the technical solution is floating turbines, something never done before which nobody knows will work. Thus the “moon shot.”
The large new solar projects being pushed by MBCP and others are, frankly, more environmentally troubling. They involve the industrial development of vast quantities of remote rural and wild lands, with horrendous environmental impacts for humans, other organisms with whom we share the earth, soils, vegetation, water, air-quality, public health, and the earth’s sustainability. The land is bulldozed, dug up, fenced off, and deep wells dug to pump fossil water to clean solar panels. Concrete is poured, asphalt is laid, buildings and miles of fences are built. This is development of raw land just as destructive as the conversion of farmland to urban uses we see closer to home.
It’s happening at a furious rate over a frightful amount of often fragile wild land which may never recover from the damage, at least in human time. Carrizo Plain’s solar installations are familiar. Solar developers there congratulate themselves for leaving “wildlife corridors” for pronghorn, neglecting to add that “antelope,” as the old cowboy songs called them, previously frolicked on all that land and didn’t need confinement to fenced corridors.
Further south, in the western Antelope Valley, as of several years ago there were 33 different applications for solar and wind projects. As construction began, residents experienced a sharp rise in valley fever and highways became dangerous from construction-related dust storms. The disturbed earth continues to blow away after construction. Community-improvement promises made by solar developers were broken. The vast desert was being fenced off and overrun, its fragile native flora and fauna destroyed and its human inhabitants made sick.
This profligate land abuse adds substantially to humanity’s assault on the earth’s future. “Nature,” comments Jamie Clark, president of the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife – “which acknowledges the seriousness of climate change on wildlife’s future and calls for urgent climate measures, “is unraveling as humans appropriate an ever greater share of our planet’s resources.”
Huge solar “farms” for MBCP, as well as for major utilities, hasten this appropriation of the earth. So, one might ask, why in the name of saving the earth do we do things that speed its demise?
I think it’s because those who shape solar electric development have their minds stuck in the fossil era: the solar age future is being shaped by coal age thinking.
Picture a coal or gas-fired power plant, or a nuke. Huge messy, noisy, dirty, vibrating, high-heat, polluting factories. They are large scale because they only work that way. They’re messy, bad neighbors. You don’t want one next door. You can’t put one in the back yard. They don’t scale down.
So utility-minds think power generation should work that way. If you do solar, you do huge solar. A considerable amount of regulatory and political leverage has gone into getting solar built this way even though it’s the wrong way to do solar.
Utility-mind thinking ignores the genius of solar, that it is the opposite of coal, gas and nuke generation in nearly every way. Solar is miniaturized power generation. If you look at the little rectangles covering the face of a solar panel, consider that each one is a tiny power plant. If you extracted one and held it in your hand, it wouldn’t burn you, stink, vibrate, spew pollution in your face, hurt your ears or even tickle your palm as it converts sunlight into electricity. Solar is different, so why is its potential for doing good for the earth subverted by treating it like an industrial age relic?
It should also be noted there are no economies of scale with solar. None. Like individual drops of water in an ocean, solar adds up — that’s how solar works.
Achieving solar’s potential to improve the world entails a different approach. Solar can be decentralized into a “distributed energy” system, an efficient system where most power is made near its point of use instead of far away. Through use of rooftops, parking lot canopies and the like, land already appropriated for human use can be sufficient to power our needs, without destroying more of nature with massive solar plants in remote places and building massive new transmission lines to carry their power to where it’s used.
If the regulatory apparatus provided the same support for distributed solar as it has for large scale solar, this would happen.
Distributed energy isn’t a new idea. It’s been discussed as a land conservation measure, as an anti-terrorism measure (solar farms, like nukes, are great targets, distributed rooftops not so much), as an economy measure, as a way to reduce transmission losses, as a faster way to transition to renewables. Evidence suggests the public has long understood this. After Sacramento Municipal Utility District shut down its faulty Rancho Seco nuke in 1989, it asked customers to volunteer rooftops for distributed solar to replace the nuke, and got more offers than it needed. If people got it then, why don’t new age electric providers – and their cheerleaders like our city council — get it now?
Adding to the attractiveness of distributed energy, it’s fast to implement. Rooftop solar typically takes only an electrical permit, which is a semi-automatic permit; no lengthy planning and environmental approvals or protracted public controversy as with raw land conversion. This is the solar future; developing huge solar “farms” is the past.
Outfits like MBCP should be leading this change by rounding up rooftops in their service area instead of developing rural and wild land.
Underlying our city’s salvation theology – that switching to MBCP will avert environmental disaster – is what should be obvious by now: this theology is carney-barker bunk.
Underlying it is distorted thinking — that to save the earth all we have to do is “de-carbonize,” to fill our lives with more stuff, like pricey induction cooktops and electric cars, that we can continue to live just like we do today, but electrically, and everything will be ducky.
This is dangerous fantasy, and believing it drags us deeper towards the point of environmental no return, towards destroying the earth’s productivity and the collapse of complex ecosystems that make human life itself possible.
While climate destabilization due to increases in atmospheric carbon threatens our survival, it is hardly the only such threat. We, and the way we live, are the cause – all of us. We cannot pretend we’re absolved just because we have solar panels and electric cars, or opt for 100% renewable power from MBCP. We consume too much of the earth’s resources. We can’t have our planet and eat it too.
We are also the only earthly beings, so far as we know, who can understand this and fix it.
There’s a simple metric for illustrating the extent of our consumption greed’s impact on the earth called the ecological footprint (EF). The EF measures the ecological assets of the earth consumed by a population’s lifestyle. These assets are broadly defined: food, fiber, minerals, energy, air and oxygen, absorption of wastes, etc. Carbonization of the atmosphere, for example, is one example of waste absorption assets becoming overloaded. EF oversimplifies: it assumes everything’s for humans, and doesn’t consider the needs of other species. That means an EF analysis is even scarier than it sounds since we need other organisms to survive.
To do the simplest EF calculation, we total the earth’s productive surface and divide it by the earth’s population. The resulting “share” for each human – not accounting for the needs of other species — is about 4 acres.
Americans take more than 20 acres. How do we justify this? Can we tell others, like the 2 billion people who live on the equivalent of $2 per day or less, that they owe this to us? Can we tell aspiring nations like China and India they can’t live like us? We’ve got a problem that isn’t in the least addressed by purchasing power from MBCP. Our city’s preaching that is a distraction from truth.
EF analysis shows 80 percent of the world’s people live in nations that exceed their EF share. Globally humans already consume resources equivalent to those of 1.7 earths. If everyone lived like Americans it would take nearly five earths to support humanity. We can borrow against the earth’s natural capital for a time, but if we don’t quickly back off and repay our debts, we’ll bring our whole earthly system crashing down. And, as we are learning from climate change, we may reach a tipping point, or a point of no return, before realizing it.
Our singular cultural preoccupation with climate anxiety leads us to ignore that climate problems are but a symptom of the larger existential environmental crash-down our greed is bringing upon ourselves – and that much of what we propose to do about climate makes other problems worse.
Ruben Anderson was quoted recently on Treehugger: “Solar panels, windmills, electric cars! There is no need to change anything, in fact, we can all have more stuff!… There is only one route out of this, and we are going down that road whether we like it or not. We will use less stuff, we will have less stuff, and we will use less energy.”
What cannot go on forever doesn’t. What’s so hard for our well-meaning city council to understand about that?