Environmentalists, energy industry mostly on same side in legal clash over Proposition 7

Ballot language fights are common this time of year. But they could be particularly important when it comes to Proposition 7. This is because the “Solar and Clean Energy Initiative” sounds great to a lot of people. But some environmentalists who oppose the measure say the devil is in the rather complex details.

On Wednesday attorneys tried hash out that language in Sacramento Superior Court. Both the sponsors and the opponents of the measure have filed suit to change the wording of the ballot arguments voters will see. According to legal papers filed July 22 by Jim Gonzalez, chair of Californians for Solar and Clean Energy, the opposition arguments contain “false or misleading statements” that should be deleted.

Jan Smutny-Jones, executive director of the Independent Energy Producers Association, has counter-sued on similar grounds. His group and others are saying that that much of the language in the initiative would have serious, negative unintended consequences. They are seeking to strike out claims by supporters that it would raise electricity rates by no more than 3 percent in the short term. A ruling is expected today.

The importance of this battle may have been made clear with the July 22 Field Poll. Of likely voters, 63 percent said that Prop. 7 sounded like a good idea. But only 18 percent were aware of the initiative before pollsters told them about it.

This is the information vacuum that both sides will seek to fill in the coming weeks. The initiative calls for the state to get half of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. According to Rachel McMahon, director of regulatory affairs for the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT), this is an idea that about four in five Californians approve of.

But CEERT was also one of the early opponents of the initiative. They are now part of a coalition of nearly 20 environmental groups opposing the measure. In addition, a separate organization called No on Prop. 7 that has signed up over 160 groups, plus numerous elected officials. Opponents are hoping the sheer size and variety of the opposition will convince voters.

“You don’t often see the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the California League of Conservation Voters, and the Chamber of Commerce all in opposition,” said Ralph Cavanaugh, energy program co-director with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Many of the conservative groups would oppose any renewable energy expansion, opponents conceded. But they’re lined up against a very small set of opposition, Cavanaugh said.

“Clearly many of the groups in opposition are groups with an indisputable record of support for renewable energy,” he said. “I’m aware of no renewable energy company or environmental group with a record of involvement in renewable energy who has any support for this initiative.”

McMahon said that the Yes on 7 campaign has lined up a few noted politicians-including former Senators John Burton and Martha Escutia-as well as a very small number of local governments and small environmental groups.

The opposition hinges on points that might seem rather obscure to the average voter. The initiative would make important changes to the siting process for new power plants. But the main bone of contention is the assertion that the initiative would change the definition of an “eligible renewable resource.”

“For reasons that I still don’t understand, and the campaign has never explained, they changed the definition of ‘eligible renewable resource’ under the California Renewable Energy Mandate,” said Cavanaugh, who is an attorney. “They added the phrase ‘solar and clean energy,’ which is the initiative brand. Solar and clean energy plants are defined as ‘30 megawatts of greater.’”

Cavanaugh and McMahon said this would mean that solar projects smaller than that wouldn’t count towards to the total Renewable Energy Portfolio (RPF). Government and business could lose out on subsidies, especially since the majority of solar projects are smaller than that. Part of the promise of solar is that it is small and modular, they said, capable of advancing one rooftop at a time. Cavanaugh said there could also be implications for wind energy, which also often happens on a small scale. The very biggest single wind turbines on create three megawatts of energy, he said.

“We feel they are flat out lying about some of the provisions,” said Solar and Clean Energy spokesman Steve Hopcraft of the 30 megawatt provision. He said the way Prop. 7 is written would not have this effect on small solar projects, adding “We think we can plainly show through independent experts that it’s a lie.”

Laura Wisland, an energy analyst for the California office of the Union of Concerned Scientists, brought up a couple of other problems she sees with the initiative. First there is an “arbitrary cap” on the price of renewable energy at 10 percent above the price of conventional energy. She also said there were loopholes which could let large utilities get out of the renewable compliance altogether. Then there’s the 2/3 vote needed in the Legislature to change any aspect of the initiative.

“There is no basis for creating such a rigid policy for such a complicated matter,” Wisland said.

Still, not all of Prop. 7 opponents are comfortable with each other. The reason so many environmental groups have been keeping their own coalition was to avoid association with some of the other opponents-particularly Pacific Gas & Electric, Sempra Energy and Edison International. These three energy companies have given a combined $1.2 million to fight the measure-the entirely of No on 7’s funding so far. The supporters have Prop. 7 have repeatedly cited this energy company opposition.

Meanwhile, all of the Yes side’s money has come from two sources. Peter Sperling, the University of Phoenix founder who has become a prominent liberal donor, gave $3 million. Meanwhile, campaign chair Jim Gonzalez has put in $100,000 of his own money. As of press time, Gonzalez had not returned a call seeking comment.

Cavanaugh said he believes there is still plenty of time to educate voters on what’s wrong with the measure. But McMahon said that Al Gore may have inadvertently made their job harder with his recent call for the country to try to move to 100 percent renewable in the next ten years.

“In terms of how confident folks are they can kill, I hear a variety [of opinions],” she said.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: