Dan Walters: Senate committee makes rational decision about electricity

04/15/2013 12:00 AM

04/15/2013 6:39 AM

One committee of one legislative house recently did something rarely seen in the California Capitol. It made a rational decision about electricity.

The Legislature has been fiddling with how Californians' power is generated, distributed and priced for the past 40 years, ever since it created the state Energy Commission with an unspoken agenda of blocking expansion of nuclear power.

Its most intrusive – and wrong-headed – incursion into utility management occurred 17 years ago when it voted unanimously for a misnamed, misbegotten "deregulation" scheme that its drafters said would lower power costs, then among the highest in the nation.

That bone-headed move invited manipulation by power generators and brokers, drove one utility company into bankruptcy and came close to making two others insolvent. Power bills soared higher and remain among the nation's highest.

More recently, fully buying into the anti-global warming movement, the Legislature has decreed that by 2020, California's private and public utilities must acquire a third of their juice from "renewable" sources such as solar, wind and geothermal.

Whatever else that decree may accomplish, power from those sources is markedly more expensive to consumers than from hydrocarbon-based generation.

The definition of "renewable" obviously excludes nuclear generation, although from a technical point of view, it is both renewable and devoid of greenhouse gas emissions.

More oddly, however, the definition of "renewable" excludes hydroelectric, except for very small installations.

Why? Stripped of all the weasel words, it's because the environmental groups that press the Legislature don't like dams on rivers – a purely ideological reason that has nothing to do with greenhouse gases.

And that's why the 8-1 vote of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee for Senate Bill 591 is so noteworthy.

The measure by Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, would allow the Merced Irrigation District to sell power from its New Exchequer Dam on the Merced River, built in 1967, to its customers.

New Exchequer power has been sold to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for many years, but the PG&E contract will soon expire and the district wants to sell it to its own customers.

Without an exemption, such sales would apparently run afoul of the renewable power decree because New Exchequer's generators are larger than the law allows.

Not surprisingly, the bill is opposed by environmental groups and the solar-wind industry as a potential first step toward officially recognizing hydropower as a renewable resource – which, of course, it is.

SB 591 still has a long way to go, and its fate is uncertain because the Legislature has a great facility for making the wrong decisions about electric power.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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