On Monday, October 20th, biologists from UC Santa Barbara announced the publication of their research into grassland plant extinction. We are currently experiencing the worst mass extinction in 65 million years, and the scientists involved in the study have concluded that our planet will lose fifty percent of its flora and fauna species within a single lifetime. Efforts are underway to determine which species of threatened plant life, based on the uniqueness of the plant’s evolution and genetic make-up, should receive the focus of conservation; the basic assumption made by the authors of this recent study is that you’re not able to save everything so save what you might miss the most. The previous mass extinction, referred to commonly as the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, is thought to have been caused by impact of one or more asteroids or a combination of such an impact and increased volcanic activity; the atmosphere became so choked that sunlight could not penetrate very well and photosynthetic development was ruptured. This announcement that we will lose one half of all plant and animal life within a single lifetime, the sixth mass extinction event recorded in geological history, is being blamed on human development.

Time Life Cover T. Boone Pickens
Image appropriated from Businesspundit.com

How can you stop something which rivals the end of dinosaurs? The upcoming November election will bring to the ballot two environmental policy initiatives for voter scrutiny. Proposition 10, Alternative Fuel Vehicles and Renewable Energy Bonds, would provide $3.425 billion for rebates and other consumer incentives to encourage the purchase of “certain high fuel economy or alternative fuel vehicles, including natural gas” as well as to fund whatever research you might like to do in the field of alternative fuel technology. The initiative also earmarks $1.25 billion for research and development of renewable energy technologies and offers grants to cities who might like to have their own research and deployment. The total sum of the money-pot would be a cool $5 billion which should be paid off in thirty years for the price of, well, $10 billion.

I’m all for investing in renewable energy and other forms of hug the whales policy, however I’m particularly wary of anything resembling a consumer/market solution. Ethics aside I have seen no evidence that throwing development into the marketplace to allow economics to determine the course has been good for the planet or, in many ways, for the development of mankind. Opponents to the bonds including the Los Angeles Times argue the claims that the rebates are for renewable/alternative energy vehicles, stating that most of the money is allotted for cars which run on natural gas. The person behind the push for Proposition 10 is T. Boone Pickens, a Texas oil-man who rides the Forbes richest bastards alive list. Opponents also seem to disregard the lesser money slates for research and development, accusing Pickens and his chain of natural gas stations of sugar-coating a greed grab. This is all pretty damming on its own, but isn’t it fundamentally damaging to sell California’s future debt for people’s cars? I consulted a friend who has been to school for engineering and transportation, worked for the state and private companies in renewable energy and who happens to be a very smart guy what his take on a precursory look at the initiative is:

Prop 10 comes from the “Jumpstart the Market” camp – with the idea that if you pay for a few of these new expensive new vehicles, suddenly they will become cheap and everybody will buy one. They propose 250 Million for incentives, meaning $2,500 for 100,000 Priuses running off cow turds (a technology I support, by the way), or some more likely cars like hydrogen Ford Explorers getting the equivalent of 10 mpg, or Ethanol Chevys running off the lunches of starving Bangladeshi children. I’ll probably vote for it. But the basic thing here is that policy makers are getting pretty far ahead of reality here. Every day, big fat bald guys buy SUVs that get sub-10mpg… why not just pay former Lehman Bros employees to give each one of them a handjob if they buy a normal car? That would only cost $100 (I’m not speaking from experience here) and everyone would walk away happy… not to mention job creation to boot…

If Proposition 10 hit the ballot sans rebates for your natural gas SUV I’d still be wary. Undefined research projects sucking up bond money guarantees nothing except that public health and schools and various social services will have less of a budget to work with in the future and they’ve been struggling year after year as it is. Yes, I support developing new energy technology (where’s our tidal generators?) and yes I think it’s a shame that money is the make or break for many projects but selling out tomorrow to throw money into the wind hardly seems responsible.

Image from Kramer Junction Operating Company via Power From the Sun

Proposition 7, Renewable Energy Generation, is a much more contentious issue. This measure would alter energy policy to require state utility companies to generate 20% of their power from renewable sources by the end of the decade, 40% by 2020 and 50% by 2025; failure to comply would result in penalties. It also transfers some authority of energy regulation from the PUC to an Energy Commission, cuts the review process for future development of renewable energy plants and creates a system for companies to lease power lines for transmission. On first glance it sounds like a great idea, but there’s a lot of technical matters I know nothing about, so I consulted my expert:

Prop 7 appears to combine two main things – fund better transmissions lines using a 3% bump in rates (and a 20% or so penalty to utilities for non-clean electricity) and simultaneously require utilities to install more renewable energy. I think that sounds like a good idea. A better idea would be to invest that money in efficiency – this policy is the statewide equivalent to installing solar panels on a house with all incandescent lights and a hot tub – not a smart move, but you can do it if you live in Berkeley. I guess [California] is the Berkeley of the US, right?

Efficiency is an issue that opponents bring to the table, although the major issue is that of power transmission. Development of solar and wind energy production would have to be in remote locations whereas population centers tend towards the coast. With the creation of a new agency and rules regarding transmission rights, apparently ill-defined, there is concern that even if new renewable energy is brought on line there would be a huge mess when it comes to determining how it is transferred from creation to use.

Image from Global Energy Network Institute

Another issue brought up by opponents is that the bill would force small-providers out of the market. When commercials first began airing against Proposition 7 this was the major claim and I reacted against a bunch of green-chic companies whining about how socialism was going to kill the market for renewable energy; again I’m not a supporter or market based solutions, particularly when you’re capitalizing on natural resources and moreso when you’re fucking with people’s lives for fun and profit. However the issue in regards to small energy providers is more of an issue with some of the language in the proposition itself. Various state utilities routinely purchase amounts of electricity from small renewable providers, the claim is 60%, but the bill doesn’t count any coming from producers that generate less than 30mw; no one seems to understand why this is the case. In fact, the consortium of odd bedfellows making up the resistance to Prop. 7 (which includes major environmental groups, science groups, both Democratic and Republican Parties, consumer rights groups as well as PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric) say that it’s not that the backers of the initiative (an Arizona billionaire Peter Sperling whose daddy started Phoenix McCollege and a couple consultants/lobbyists drafted the bill and have paid for the lion’s share of ads) have ill-intentions but that they’ve written such a bad legal document that having the new law perverted by industry vultures in inevitable.

The bill requires an increase of 3% in everyone’s utility bill to help pay for the new lines and renewable energy plants required by the law but places no cap on what the increase might be eventually. Proponents say they trust the market to sort itself out but the last time California placed its power needs at the mercy of the market we all got reamed. Best of all the bill requires any changes to the bill have to be instituted by a 2/3 legislative majority.

It pains be vote against a measure which attempts to strong-arm policy and wrestle it into greener pastures but the consensus that this bill is fatally flawed scares me. People are already too freaked out by financial insecurities and having a state overrun with utility bills while transmission rights are fought over by corporations in the courtroom is hardly the way to show the rest of the country or the world that we can change the way our energy is created.

I also benefited greatly from Ed Ring’s analysis at EcoWorld as well as Kate’s at Hold On To That Feeling.