Green City: PG&E’s two faces

Pub date October 3, 2007
WriterSara Knight
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY If Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is really working to become "the nation’s greenest utility," as it claims, why is it opposing more renewable energy in California? Pending legislation — which PG&E opposes — would require a larger percentage of the state’s energy to be produced from renewable resources by 2020.

The fact that PG&E is against Senate Bill 411 doesn’t jibe with its self-proclaimed goal of going green. Current law — established as the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) — requires investor-owned utilities like PG&E to procure at least 20 percent of their energy from renewable resources by the end of 2010. SB 411 would increase the amount of required renewable energy to 33 percent by 2020. It makes sense that a green-aspiring company would want to support renewable-energy generation, right?

Yet PG&E is struggling to meet the current deadline of 20 percent by 2010, as the Guardian reported in "Green Isn’t PG&E" (4/18/07) and San Francisco Chronicle business reporter David R. Baker wrote Sept. 27. By way of explanation, Baker wrote, "California currently doesn’t have enough windmills, solar panels, and geothermal fields to do the job."

Jim Metropulos, legislative representative for Sierra Club California, told us the issue is one not of resources but of priorities. "PG&E has continued to make investments in fossil-fuel generation while not investing as much as they should in renewables." In other words, PG&E is in danger of not meeting the RPS deadline — and actively opposing more renewable energy generation in our state — because it’s been choosing to put its money elsewhere (such as front-page "Green is …" ads in the Chronicle and other campaigns to greenwash its image and fight public power).

PG&E did not return our phone calls seeking comment, but the "opposition argument" against SB 411 listed on the California Senate Web site reads, in part, "Opponents argue the bill … eliminates opportunities for utilities to identify potentially less costly means of meeting requirements."

This is a seemingly innocuous sentence, but it brings to mind another piece of pending legislation, Assembly Bill 809, that is currently on the governor’s desk, awaiting his signature. This bill would enable utilities to meet the current requirement of 20 percent by 2010 by changing the legal definition of renewable energy. AB 809 would effectively dilute the definition of renewable and give investor-owned utilities renewable credit for power generated by environmentally destructive large dams.

Under current law, hydroelectric plants that produce fewer than 30 megawatts meet the standards of renewable. AB 809 would extend the definition of renewable to include larger hydro plants that implement "efficiency improvements."

Instead of investing in legitimately sustainable means of producing energy, PG&E seeks to water down the standards and gain RPS credit for already existing hydroelectric plants. Nice way to cut costs, eh? As Metropulos puts it, "PG&E supports AB 809 since they get a lot of power from hydro."

Again, the question at hand is: if PG&E is seeking the title of "the nation’s greenest utility," why is it working against green energy in California?

Aliza Wasserman of Green Guerrillas Against Green Washing said the answer is simple: "Their actions are blatantly hypocritical." She sees PG&E as a duplicitous entity, pandering to the public with its "Let’s green this city" marketing blitz while simultaneously lobbying against renewable energy.

Wasserman notes that while PG&E is touting itself as a friend of the environment and sponsoring "every environmental event and organization in town to appear green," it only generates 1 percent of its energy from solar and less than 2 percent from wind. Comparatively, 24 percent of its energy is from nuclear generation, an energy source that produces toxic by-products and harms aquatic ecosystems.

SB 411 comes up for vote again in January 2008, pending a feasibility report by the California Energy Commission. "This is a critical moment in history," Wasserman says. "Are our legislators going to sell out or step up?"

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