Proposition 7 tackles issue of clean energy

Tuesday's statewide ballot includes the Solar and Clean Energy Initiative. The question known as Proposition 7 would require all California utilities to use clean generation sources for half of their energy within 17 years. KPCC's Molly Peterson says that to speed a move to renewables, the measure promises to streamline some state approvals for big projects.

Group, including Antonio Villaraigosa: So, we're going to do it. One, two, three, mazel tov! [sound of shovels]

Molly Peterson: Earlier this year, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's golden shovel broke ground on the 120-megawatt Pine Tree Wind Farm. At the ceremony, the mayor half-jokingly staked Department of Water & Power head David Nahai's job on meeting clean energy goals.

Villaraigosa: And of course his job will depend on whether he can get us to 20 percent renewables by 2010. (crowd laughs)
David Nahai: I'm confident my job is secure on that basis, because we, we're going to get there. We're going to get there.

Peterson: If voters approve Prop 7, it wouldn't be just Nahai's job on the line. Utilities including the DWP would face financial penalties if they miss the target.

S. David Freeman (in ad): Prop 7 forces them to get half their electricity from clean sources, and they want to keep making money burning dirty fossil fuels.

Peterson: That's S. David Freeman. He used to head utilities in L.A. and Sacramento. Freeman gives the "pro" side some green cred. Prop 7 gets green cash from Peter Sperling, a philanthropist who's backed some unsuccessful ballot measures before. Sperling and political consultant Jim Gonzalez wanted a winner this time around.

Jim Gonzalez: So we said, OK, how can we remove barriers to solar and clean energy developing big-time in California without it costing the taxpayers in taxes, or in big bonds, or anything like that?

Peterson: Gonzalez says Prop 7 would streamline the approval process for renewable projects in California's desert areas and mountains. But UC Berkeley law professor Steve Weissman isn't so sure that'll work. He predicts utilities won't be able to move fast even with the help.

Steve Weissman: You have to go out for bid, people compete for the bid, you decide what looks good, you sign the contract, then somebody has to go out and build a facility, and that takes a lot of time and requires a lot of regulatory approvals.

Peterson: That's the concern about big projects still on the drawing board. Opponents of Proposition 7 say they're worried about whether it will keep counting smaller utility projects towards renewable energy goals.

[Sound of solar installers on roof]

Peterson: If you think it's been warm lately, get on a roof with Salvador Sanchez, an installer for the company Solar City. On this day he's sweating over a Palos Verdes house, wearing a big floppy hat and a grin to match. Sanchez says he's booked solid for residential jobs.

Salvador Sanchez: About two weeks in advance. And after that, we finish one job, another one pops out. It's always never ending work, and I love it.

Peterson: Jim Cahill supervises Solar City's Southern California operations. He says utility rebates and state credits have helped his company put small-scale solar on the grid.

Jim Cahill: Right now, the utility is offering rebates, because these projects all count toward their renewable portfolio standard.

Peterson: Cahill worries that Prop 7's focus on easing the way for big projects would leave small projects without the incentives they rely on.

Cahill: We think all of that rebate money is going to be directed toward, eventually, toward these 30-megawatt-plus systems, which will effectively kill the industry as we know it today. It will become more like a utility scale industry.

Peterson: Solar City has installed solar panels on about a thousand California roofs this year. Cahill says that's about one-fifth the energy of a single big project envisioned by Prop 7. But big projects would likely need new transmission lines; rooftop solar works on the existing grid.

[Sound of men on roof]

Peterson: Beyond renewable energy providers, investor-owned utilities like Edison have dumped $29 million into No on 7. Lined up with them are most of the state's big newspapers, every major political party, and a raft of environmentalists. They all complain that the initiative is confusing as written. UC Berkeley's Weissman says that may be a fatal flaw.

Weissman: Sometimes they decide to have definitions and sometimes they decide not to. So you're left with trying to figure out with whether you should rely just on the words that are in the proposition or whether you have to add other things just from common sense, or from history.

Peterson: Weissman hasn't taken a position on the measure, but he says Proposition 7's prospects could depend on whether Californians want renewables so badly they'll take on a potential court battle to make it stick.