Editorials

How Modesto electricity customers will foot the cost of doomed hydropower bill

The hope that Sacramento politicians might apply some common sense in reckoning what constitutes clean energy apparently was in vain.

Senate Bill 386 provided a perfect opportunity to acknowledge what any rational analysis would conclude — that carbon-free, river-driven electricity from the powerhouse at Don Pedro Dam, 40 miles east of Modesto, emits no greenhouse gases and is as clean as clean energy can be.

But common sense doesn’t count for much in politics. The unfairness will force 222,000 families and businesses in the Modesto and Turlock areas to spend millions more dollars for electricity.

The Legislature’s goal of forcing utilities to move from outdated, pollution-spewing modes of energy generation — like burning coal, or less-nasty natural gas — toward green sources like windmills and solar panels, isn’t wrong on its face. Someone must lead the way to reduce effects of climate change; California has done well to assume that role.

But some of the rules associated with going green cause economic harm to certain consumers — in this case, everyone buying electricity from the Modesto or Turlock irrigation districts, a region with more than a fair share of low-income people.

Years ago, the environmental lobby convinced legislators not to classify hydropower from large dams like Don Pedro as clean energy. This would force utilities to invest more heavily in solar and wind systems, the thinking went, and sure enough, MID and TID forked out more than $200 million in such projects.

The rules were updated last year in Senate Bill 100, requiring that 60 percent of utilities’ electricity come from renewable sources by 2030, and 100 percent by 2045. Defying all logic, hydropower can count toward utilities’ quotas after 2030 but not before.

Why?

Environmental advocates loathe dams, which alter wildlife habitat. Wind and solar contractors, and their powerful unions, warned that other utilities would demand similar treatment for dams across California if Don Pedro were exempted. Giving MID and TID a break, they fear, might devalue their wind and solar cash cows elsewhere, and that can’t be allowed.

Facing pressure, Sen. Anna Caballero, a Salinas Democrat whose district stretches into the Valley to include Merced County and part of Stanislaus County, on Thursday withdrew SB 386. She announced that it will become a two-year bill, allowing her to revive it next year if the political landscape somehow changes.

The bill’s failure means MID customers alone will pay $14 million more than they should in the next decade, the utility says, to buy more clean energy even though we already have all the electricity we need. Surpluses will be sold on the open market, sometimes at a loss.

“For decades, the poorest communities in California have carried both the environmental and financial burden of climate change,” Caballero fumed in a release. “There is something fundamentally wrong when a disadvantaged community, in its fight for equity, is demonized and portrayed as undoing California’s entire (renewable energy goals),” she said.

So we’ll continue paying more for our electricity because some big companies wanting even more money have a lot of pull in Sacramento. Such unfairness is the essence of bad public policy.

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