California Energy Panel Split on Government's Role in Renewables

The panel consisted of legislators, clean energy proponents and oil industry reps who gathered to debate about the state's plan to cut petroleum use by 50 percent in 15 years.

by John Cox, The Bakersfield Californian / March 4, 2016
The Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm, Kern County, California Flickr/Don Barrett

(TNS) -- Members of a panel convened to discuss California’s energy future clashed Thursday evening over how — and even whether — government should prod the state’s residents and industry toward greater use of renewable power sources.

Panelists including a state lawmaker, a renewable energy advocate and an oil industry representative argued over the economic costs of phasing out petroleum-based fuels, as well as technology’s ability to deliver innovations that won’t leave the Central Valley behind in Sacramento’s ever-more ambitious drive toward an environmentally sustainable future.

In occasionally sharp exchanges, the five speakers debated one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s top policy priorities, cutting the Golden State’s use of petroleum fuels 50 percent by 2030, a goal the state Legislature ultimately rejected last fall, prompting the governor to pursue the goal through administrative channels. Another focus of discussion was California’s cap and trade system, which forces businesses to buy credits so they can emit greenhouse gases.

The event at The Mark restaurant in downtown Bakersfield was put on by TBC Media, parent organization of The Californian, in cooperation with CALmatters, a nonprofit journalism startup based in Sacramento.

Skeptics of the Brown administration’s renewable energy push were represented by state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, and Cathy Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry trade group. Advocating on the other side of the issue were Bakersfield renewable energy analyst and author Paul Gipe and former state Sen. Dean Florez, a Shafter resident recently appointed to the California Air Resources Board. Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s senior director of planning and analysis, Todd Strauss, staked out ground somewhere between the two sides.

Fuller cast California’s energy policy debate as a choice between forcing changes in human behavior “in socialistic ways” versus letting market forces set the pace for transitioning to greater reliance on renewable power. If a proper balance is not struck, she warned, the Central Valley could bear a disproportionate burden during the shift.

The senator noted California meets its energy demand only by importing two-thirds of its combined oil, gas and electricity. She asserted the governor would be impeached immediately if the supply petroleum were suddenly shut off.

“If we’re going to be leaders for tomorrow, let’s do it right,” she said.

Gipe said the transition toward more renewables is more a question of political will. He pointed to European countries aiming to move aggressively toward greater use of solar and wind power, and said California’s goal of meeting 50 percent of its electricity needs to 2030 should be more ambitious, not less.

His impassioned advocacy was countered more than once by Reheis-Boyd, who cautioned moving too quickly risks economic harm. She also questioned how California officials would fill the budget gap that would arise if suddenly state government had to do without gasoline tax revenue.

Florez urged continued progress toward wider adoption of renewables. He recalled a study done in the 1980s predicting fewer than 1 million Americans would use cellphones by 2000 because of clunky technology. He called the low estimate an example of lack of faith in innovation and consumer demand for alternatives.

The air board member also asserted “choppy” oil industry conditions present a problem that might be mitigated by broadening the state’s menu of renewable fuels.

“We need to diversify to a point we even out out those ebbs and flows,” Florez said.

Strauss said although the state’s goal of getting half its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 was “doable,” it remains unclear what the precise mix of fuels will be. For that reason, he proposed policymakers stay flexible on how utilities such as PG&E procure energy for their customers.

“We need to take it one step at a time,” he said.

©2016 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.