California Takes the Lead on Renewable Energy – or Does It?

Last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzanegger issued Executive Order S-14-08, a measure that will raise the state’s renewable energy goals over the next 12 years.

“I am proposing we set the most aggressive target in the nation for
renewable energy – 33 percent by the year 2020 – that’s a third of our
energy from sources like solar, wind and geothermal,” Governor
Schwarzenegger said.

But as always in politics, you have to read between the lines.
California
already had an aggressive policy in place that would require 20 percent renewable energy sources by
2010. It’s not clear from this new executive order how the old target
will be integrated. Is this really moving California’s policy goals
forward – or is it going to actually back off from the 2010 goal?
As part of the package, Schwarzanegger said
the state will streamline regulations to allow fast-tracking of
renewable projects. “We won’t meet that goal doing business as usual,
where environmental regulations are holding up environmental progress
in some cases,” he said. “This executive order will clear the red tape
for renewable projects and streamline the permitting and siting of new
plants and transmission lines.”
Few will disagree that some streamlining is in
order – the current system involves several layers of permitting and
approvals at both the state and federal levels. Writing for The Wall
Street Journal Online, Keith Johnson noted, “The permitting process
for new transmission lines is time-consuming, and cumbersome. The
environmental impact statement for a single, 150-mile transmission
project in southern California, for instance, runs to 11,000 pages.”
The governor’s executive order will create a one-stop
approval shop, a joint Renewable Energy Action Team of the California
Energy Commission (CEC) and the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) that
also includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of
Land Management.
That streamlining might help good projects get
through more quickly, but it can also be used to slip more questionable
items onto the agenda.
Take the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line
for instance. To move the renewable-derived power around, we need more
transmission lines – but transmission lines have environmental impacts
of their own, especially when they plow through sensitive ecological
zones like the Mojave desert (where many solar installations are being
sited).
Sunrise Powerlink was nearly turned down because of the environmental impact – and because the California Public Utilities Commission decided it wasn’t needed to meet the 2010 goal.
Now, with the new pumped-up 2020 goal, the argument
starts all over again. And the streamlining looks like it might just
help Sunrise Powerlink squeak through.