The Renewable Switch:
Environment-Friendly Energy Available Now to South Coast
by Tam Hunt, Bud Laurent, Peter Jeschke, Kristen
Morrison*, July 20, 2003
Renewable energy has come of age. A recent report on the state
of the renewable energy industry concludes: "Dramatic improvements
in performance, as well as government incentives, have resulted
in reduced costs that are quickly making renewable energy technologies
competitive with traditional forms of electricity generation .
The report adds that the cost of electricity from
solar photovoltaics and wind is only one-tenth what it was 20
years ago. (Report, "The Changing Face of Renewable Energy,"
available at www.navigantconsulting.com.)
Large wind projects already produce energy at
costs competitive with natural gas-powered electricity plants,
and this will only continue to improve as the cost of natural
gas increases and as demand for this finite resource increases.
It is only a matter of time before solar, biomass and other renewable
energy technologies achieve cost parity.
It is becomingly increasingly apparent that the
real obstacles to leaving the unsustainable fossil fuel era are
largely political and legal in nature and less and less economic
or technical. Accordingly, legal tools are being crafted throughout
the country to help usher in the sustainable renewable energy
Communities across America are now choosing to
pursue greater energy independence through renewable and more
environmentally friendly technologies, and these same choices
are now available to the Santa Barbara region.
California, in the last year alone, has enacted
major energy legislation that has brought our state to the forefront
in developing renewable energy. This legislation includes SB 1078,
which mandates that California obtain 20 percent of its energy
needs from renewable sources by 2017; AB 1493, which aims to significantly
reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks beginning
in 2009; and AB 117, the "Community Choice" law. AB
117 allows cities and counties, beginning on July 15, 2003, to
combine their residents' electricity needs to negotiate long-term
power contracts directly with energy companies and to administer
state-funded conservation and efficiency programs currently administered
by investor-owned utilities.
Community Choice will allow existing investor-owned
utilities to maintain all their operations except power procurement
negotiation and state-funded conservation and efficiency programs.
That is, the incumbent utility will still meter customers, still
bill customers, and still earn similar profits to those it currently
For achieving real, on-the-ground, economic and
environmental benefits in a fairly short time frame, Community
Choice may be the most promising of the new laws for communities
like Santa Barbara and the rest of the South Coast.
Under similar laws passed in Massachusetts, Ohio
and California (in a similar, now defunct, program), communities
have achieved significant cost savings by negotiating power contracts
through renewable energy providers.
California's version of Community Choice may allow
local governments to save money on their power bills and to obtain
state funds to achieve greater conservation and efficiency, leading
to additional savings. In addition to taking advantage of economies
of scale, combining different types of electricity users (commercial,
industrial and residential) will allow local governments to create
an attractive "load profile" -- the pattern of electricity
use throughout the day, which providers like to be as constant
as possible -- to help negotiate savings.
Other than the financial benefits Community Choice
may bring, local governments will be able to negotiate power contracts
with energy suppliers who can provide a significant percentage
of renewable power.
In the past, developing renewable energy generation
has been hindered by a "chicken and egg" situation due
to the difficulties in penetrating a market controlled by traditional
fossil fuel power suppliers. Now, as demand for renewable power
grows due to communities opting for it through Community Choice,
energy suppliers will be enabled and motivated to bring online
new renewable energy projects that are often stalled for lack
of reliable contracts to sell such power. There are currently
such projects being proposed in Santa Barbara County that may
be aided through implementation of Community Choice.
By promoting the development and use of renewable
energy, California's communities will be doing their part to curb
the dangers of global warming, reduce asthma and other air-related
health problems in our children, and ameliorate the problem of
nuclear waste generation by reducing the need to build new nuclear
power plants and creating green power to replace electricity from
existing nuclear plants.
Implementing Community Choice will not be an overnight
endeavor and the proposed benefits are not written in stone. But
this new legislation is tremendously promising and provides a
substantial tool for communities suffering under the twin burdens
of a budget crunch and a desire to help create a sustainable future.
We believe that Community Choice bears consideration
by both local governments and community organizations like the
Community Environmental Council's Santa Barbara County Regional
Energy Alliance for adoption and implementation.
It may prove to be the ultimate "win-win"
in the quest to obtain energy that rests easy on our pocketbooks
as well as our consciences.
* Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney; Bud Laurent is CEO of
the Community Environmental Council; Peter Jeschke is CEO of MEI
Power Corp.; Kristen Morrison is coordinator of the Renewable
Energy Project, with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.