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

by Indy, published

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.

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