Editorial: Making Energy Sources Clean, Transparent

 

The creation of locally owned and operated power agencies such as Sonoma Clean Power has opened opportunities for consumers to have the option of ensuring more of their electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal.

But how “clean” these sources are is not always as apparent as one would think.

A measure working its way through the state Legislature, Assembly Bill 1110, seeks to ensure those supplies are clear and transparent — and as clean as — promised. It’s a good idea.

Under existing law, power suppliers in California must disclose the sources of their energy. The bill, authored by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco and sponsored by the consumer protection group The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, would also require retail suppliers to disclose the emissions from greenhouse gases that are associated with their power sources.

This is significant because one way suppliers now can augment their energy supply is by buying renewable energy credits, which essentially are guarantees that the funds for that power are supporting the development of renewable energy sources somewhere, perhaps out of state.

With some credits, the source can be traced directly to wind or solar farms or some other power supply. But with what are known as unbundled RECs, the source of the supply — and thus the greenhouse gas emissions — is harder to identify because the credit can be traded like a commodity.

Under AB 1110, companies would be prohibited from adjusting their calculation of emissions from greenhouse gases from unbundled credits. At the least, it would force these companies to come clean about how green their sources really are. And best, it would encourage the elimination of unbundled RECs from company portfolios.

It’s a worthy goal. Sonoma Clean Power already has weaned itself from almost all unbundled RECs, according to CEO Geof Syphers, and it already doesn’t count them toward its greenhouse gas emissions. “We are the outlier at this point,” he said.

Ting’s bill is supported by California Clean Power and the Sierra Club. It’s opposed by the California Municipal Utilities Association and the Northern California Power Agency, which represents such city-owned utilities as Healdsburg, Ukiah and Palo Alto. Opponents are concerned that the bill conflicts with current reporting requirements and could result in higher costs.

But if consumers are buying power under the presumption that it’s clean and green, and if it’s not, that’s just false advertising, pure and simple.

The only problem with AB 1110, as Syphers pointed out in a recent visit with The Press Democrat Editorial Board, is that it has a flaw in its wording. Essentially it could discourage entities such as Sonoma Clean Power from buying Category 2 credits, which are a grade above “unbundled” RECs and are clearly linked to a power source, such as a wind facility in Oregon, that is not as firm and direct as power from an in-state supplier.

In this case, Sonoma Clean Power would be able to count the power as renewable but in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it would have to be counted as nonrenewable.

“If this bill goes forward … it will require us to double count this energy, “ said Syphers. “It’s really sneaky.”

The good news is that TURN has recognized the problem and is in discussions with Syphers about how the wording could be amended.

We encourage Ting to accept these changes and urge the Legislature to send it to the governor for his signature.

Community choice groups such as Sonoma Clean Power exist — and more are in the works — primarily because of swelling public concern about the impacts of climate change. Given that, consumers deserve a transparent and easy-to-understand way of seeing how much greenhouse gas comes from the power they are buying. AB 1110 supplies that simplicity — and, in the process, encourages the elimination of unbundled RECs. We hope that is the case.