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California Can’t Stop Building Unneeded Fossil Fuels Plants

Nithin Coca headshotWords by Nithin Coca
Energy & Environment
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A recent story in the Los Angeles Times lays bare the absurdity of California’s energy landscape and the overwhelming power of for-profit utilities.

The Golden State is undergoing a clean-energy boom, with solar installations skyrocketing. Yet, at the same time, it's building several new mostly gas-fired power plants. Combined with increasing energy efficiency, you have the recipe for a massive glut -- one that is costing the state billions.

This begs the obvious question: If California has too much energy, and already mandated state clean-energy goals, why is it building more fossil fuel power plants?

Part of the problem is that much of the state’s power generation is still under the control of investor-owned utilities, in particular, the California big three: Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Pacific Gas & Electric.

These companies all opposed the California Public Utilities Commission's decision to maintain net-metering early last year, despite near universal support from solar companies, environmentalists and clean-energy experts. The reason? Net metering reduces these utilities' power over the energy system and their bottom line.

So while PG&E markets itself as a solar leader, it pushed forward on plans to build the Colusa Natural Gas Plant under a guaranteed profit agreement, the LA Times reported. The plant is now generating far below its capacity, meaning that ratepayers are filling in this gap. Yet, due to regulations, PG&E still profits from the plant.

Guess where the profits are coming from? You guessed it – us. It is ratepayers who bear the brunt of this unneeded power plant boom. Electricity rates have gone up, despite the growth in cheaper solar power and increased energy-efficiency measures. Californians pay 12 percent more for electricity than they did in 2008, a stark contrast to the rest of the U.S., where energy rates remain steady.

If there is hope in the future, it lies not in the investor-owned utilities or the Public Utility Commission, but in the growing number of activists across the state fighting the expansion of fossil fuel plants, like the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

It was, after all, grassroots activists led by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign that resulted in the closure of dozens of dirty coal-fired power plants across the country. We need to expand that movement to cover all fossil fuels, particularly in California where gas, not coal, is the dirtiest emitter. Let’s put the environment ahead of the investor-owned utility profits.

In Germany, it was only after consumers took over private utilities and made them public entities that they were able to shift to renewables. California may need to consider doing the same – and one avenue might be Community Choice Energy, in which cities regain control over energy choices. It’s time.

Image credit: David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons

Nithin Coca headshotNithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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