Attempt to change California’s definition of renewable energy fails

A controversial effort to broaden California’s definition of renewable energy has fizzled out. The proposal would have allowed electricity from a large dam in the Central Valley to count the same as solar and wind.

Under a law signed last year by former Gov. Jerry Brown aimed at reducing smog and greenhouse gas emissions, utilities in California are required to produce 60 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Large dams aren’t allowed to count toward that total, however. That rule dates back nearly 20 years, when state lawmakers wanted to increase investment in solar and wind projects, and did not want to increase demand for construction of big new dams on rivers, which kill salmon and have other environmental impacts.

But State Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, introduced the bill earlier this year to allow two utilities, the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, to count the electricity generated by turbines at Don Pedro Reservoir, which they jointly own, toward their 60 percent mandate.

Caballero, whose district includes eastern Santa Clara County and much of Stanislaus, San Benito, Fresno and Merced counties, said she was trying to keep electricity costs low for low-income residents of the Central Valley by not requiring the two utilities to buy solar and wind power when they already have clean electricity from the Don Pedro Reservoir, which is visible to motorists driving to Yosemite National Park along Highway 120 east of Groveland.

“California’s renewable energy goals are laudable, but they should take into account the different ways in which our most disadvantaged communities are affected,” she said late last week.

The bill passed an early vote in a committee. But it failed to gain enough support for Caballero to bring it up for a vote in the full Senate, where it needed 21 of 40 votes. Instead the bill was reassigned to the rules committee, and branded as a two-year bill, which gives Caballero the option of bringing it up again next year.

The bill drew stiff opposition from environmental and health groups, from the Sierra Club to the American Lung Association. They argued that if Don Pedro’s electricity was counted as renewable, then the owners of dozens of other large dams would want the same treatment. That would mean that demand for solar and wind power could falter.

“California needs to double down and do even more on ramping up renewable energy,” said Fran Pavley, a former state senator who wrote California’s landmark cap-and-trade law in 2006, and who opposed Caballero’s bill. “The sense of urgency is real.”

Pavley noted that under current law, hydropower from large dams will count as renewable after 2045, when state law requires 100 percent of California’s electricity to come from renewable or “carbon-free” sources. And, she added, there is a provision in existing law that lets utilities appeal to the state Public Utilities Commission for a waiver if they can prove unfair rate hikes on customers.