Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Activist Works to Pass Proposition 7 for His Family’s Future
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Two rival initiatives to encourage the use of renewable energy will appear on the November 4 election ballot in California. One, Proposition 10, would require California to spend at least $5 billion on direct subsidies to renewable-energy businesses and consumers. The other, Proposition 7, is an attempt to strengthen existing requirements under California law for utilities to start providing power from renewable energy sources by a particular date.
According to the language of the initiative itself, Proposition 7 “will put California on the path to energy independence by requiring all electric utilities to purchase 50 percent of their electricity from clean energy sources like solar and wind by 2025. Right now, over 22 percent of California’s greenhouse gases comes from electricity generation but around 10 percent of California’s electricity comes from solar and clean energy sources, leaving Californians vulnerable to high energy costs, to political instability in the Middle East, and to being held hostage by big oil companies.”
Chris Bricker is a local activist and organizer for Proposition 7. He requested an interview with Zenger’s and discussed the virtues of Proposition 7, the role of large utility companies in a renewable-energy future, and the folly of the Right’s current “Drill Here, Drill Now” campaign to prioritize maximum exploitation of America’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves as an alternative both to foreign oil and renewable energy.
Zenger’s: Could you tell me what Proposition 7 is, what it would do, and why you think it’s a good idea?
Bricker: First, I think I should tell you a quick story about why I got involved with it. About two years ago, I was talking to my stepson. When he was growing up, I was working as a representative for the hospitality union. I had odd hours, which was a good thing and a bad thing. I could be hanging out for his water polo games and his soccer games and all the rest of that stuff. But I wasn’t home at night all that much, and of course on the weekends I had to work at night because that’s where I made my money.
Recently, my stepson — coincidentally, his name is Chris — and I had an opportunity for a one-on-one conversation. I said, “You know, Chris, sometimes I feel really bad that I wasn’t able to spend normal parts of the week with you, like other dads did.” He said, “Dad, I’ve got to tell you something, and I want you to remember this. I wouldn’t be who I am today, what I am today, if it hadn’t been for what you had exposed me to, and the new things that you had introduced me to, and helping me to think outside the box.” I was floored. That was the most wonderful compliment, I think, that a father could ever have from his son or his daughter.
Now he’s a teacher, and his wife is a teacher, and they have two kids. They teach at the high school up in Bishop, California, and when I go up there to visit them — in fact, I was up there about three or four weeks ago, right around the time of the fires up in Yosemite — I look at their two kids, and say to myself, “He’s going to be a good dad. They’re going to be great parents of these kids, and they’re going to introduce them to a lot of things that are sort of handed down by tradition, so to speak.” But one of the things that they’re going to need to do is to make sure that the environment in which they live is survivable, as if it were a legacy that we were all leaving for the generations to come. So when I had an opportunity to organize for Proposition 7, that really stuck in my mind.
What Proposition 7 does is put pressure on the big utility providers to reach a 50 percent alternative energy capacity by 2025. Right now, there’s legislation on the books for 33 percent by 2020. But it has too many loopholes. The utilities could ignore the renewable requirements and instead accept the penalty fines as just a cost of doing business. There’s no teeth in the current law, nothing that enables us to be able to put pressure on utilities to be able to meet those benchmarks. All we’re asking is for the utilities to take half of what we pay for energy and make it alternative energy sources: biomass, ocean and water, solar, and wind.
In order to do this, there has to be a climate for people to be able to invest in these projects. There are approximately 25 million acres of desert land in California that have an average of 300 days out of the year where this precious and free energy source comes to us by sunlight. We would propose energy conservation zones in the desert, where these hybrid alternative-energy complexes could be built; and, in order to encourage investment from bankers and other people who are interested in investing in these projects, we would not only put the permit process on the fast track, we would also have the contracts be long-term 20-year contracts.
The estimate is that this initiative will create around 371, 000 jobs throughout the state, and that doesn’t count the jobs that are created in order to maintain these facilities once they’re built. This initiative also provides that environmental concerns must be met before any project moves forward. That’s not part of the fast-track process.
In the 1880’s we were putting about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Currently there’s about 380 parts per million going into the atmosphere, and we’re reaching the tipping point. If we continue at that rate for the next 10 years, we’ll reach the point of no return. We have an opportunity to reverse that, just by doing this, to bring that back to 350 parts per million. California is the 17th largest polluter in the world, and there’s no reason why we can’t be leaders not only to other states, but also to the rest of the world, in solving that problem and becoming 100 percent alternative-energy dependent.
We’re faced with opposition, I have to tell you. About three weeks ago, the big utilities poured approximately $21 to $22 million into a campaign to defeat this proposition. They had an ad campaign that was ready to start. However, we took them to court because there were four issues that we sued them on, that we considered to be false information. Three of the issues, the court agreed that that was true. And on the remaining issue, which had to do with whether or not energy providers of 30,000 megawatts or less would be included in the mandate, even though we had a preponderance of evidence, the judge decided he would leave it up to vigorous debate.
Zenger’s: One question that immediately occurs to me is that isn’t this an approach that is really locking us into the idea of getting our power from large utility companies, whether or not that’s the most efficient way of using alternative energy? The people I’ve talked to who are pushing alternative energy say that the great thing about it is that, to a large extent, individuals could own their own power and wouldn’t need utility companies, which is why they’re putting so much money into fighting this. Your approach seems to be an attempt to reconcile the utility companies to the alternative energy future by leaving them a key role in delivering power.
Bricker: The utilities are the big elephants in the room. They are there. They exist. Their motives and their future need to be addressed. They’re just not going to go off into the sunset. You have to have a means of transmitting power once it’s produced. It’s great for people that can afford it to be able to be self-sustaining in their homes, whether it be rooftop solar or all the rest of that stuff. But what about all of us who might live in an apartment?
When you stop to think about it, it takes about 14 years in the permitting process to bring a nuclear power plant on line, and almost as long for a fossil-fuel plant. But it takes five years to bring one of these hybrid alternative-energy resources on line. And if takes 300,000 years for nuclear waste to dissipate, what was the longest civilization that ever existed? What are we supposed to do, leave a note for the next civilization, right?
Zenger’s: Could you explain the difference between Proposition 7 and Proposition 10? I mean, just this morning I downloaded both of them and I’m not sure myself which one of these is which.
Bricker: Ours, the “Solar and Clean Energy Act,” doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything, This [Proposition 10] looks to me like it would be in the form of a bond issue of some sort. With Proposition 7, you’re looking at 42 pages of science and art, state of the art, future thinking. A lot of what the big utilities will address has already been legislated. It’s not something that we put into the act. We’re putting in six or seven pages of changes that actually put teeth into the process. And it’s important for people to know that.
Zenger’s: Getting back to the utilities, I remember for the last issue just before the primary election, I had to look up material relating to the Sunrise Powerlink proposed by SDG&E. It was a frustrating experience because on their Web site, you went through pages and pages of all this stuff about how it was going to be wonderful for alternative energy, it was going to bring all this alternative energy into SDG&E’s service area, and it took a lot of plowing through their site just to find the basics of where it starts, where it stops and how long is it, which is what I needed for my article. Isn’t an initiative like this just going to encourage more boondoggles like that?
Bricker: No, because, first of all, a lot of what was going to come through that Sunrise Powerlink, aside from the debate as to where it was going to be laid out, was going to come from dirty power in Mexico. Anything having to do with transmission lines, or plans that are in the works, have already been budgeted by the big utilities and are in the permitting process. The question is what kind of energy are you going to be sending across those lines, not whether or not they’re going to exist, because they are going to exist.
The Sunrise Powerlink fiasco was a whole other thing. There was a genuine effort to disseminate misinformation in order to win a public mandate or public pressure to put this Sunrise Powerlink where they wanted to put it.
Zenger’s: So what in your initiative would prevent either a project like the Sunrise Powerlink or the “this is going to be great for alternative energy” propaganda used to sell it?
Bricker: You’ve got to realize that the big utility companies are purchasing this power. They’re not building it. Any existing power plant has a shelf life before it has to be either torn down, redesigned or refurbished. So the whole idea is ultimately to rid ourselves of our dependency on anything having to do with fossil-fuel production or nuclear production.
Zenger’s: In other words, as the existing coal and gas and nuke plants wear out, the idea behind your initiative is it would either encourage or compel the power producers to build alternative, renewable sources.
Bricker: Sure, and if you’re just looking at it from a sheer market point of view, the market will follow. Twenty years from now, the big utilities will be hopping on [the renewables bandwagon] just in order to sell their service. Also, in the initiative there’s a cap on what the utilities would be allowed to charge the consumer [to finance the changeover], and it’s around 3 percent. That could be an additional cost to the consumer, but it’s likely that it won’t, because the state of the art in this field is changing every six months. Amazing discoveries. And all this is going to do — in addition to everything else — is fuel that R&D, fuel that investment and discovery even more, and accelerate it. But we have to address the big elephant in the room, in addition to everything else. And it’s not being done.
Zenger’s: One thing that I’ve noticed is that we’re in the middle of a really incredible propaganda campaign away from environmental restrictions, away from alternative energy. You have just about every program on talk radio, the entire Right-wing media infrastructure, saying, “The reason gasoline is at $4 a gallon is those pesky environmentalists won’t let us drill the petroleum we have in the United States. We have to take out all of our oil, we have to take out all our gas, we have to take out all our coal, we have to develop nuclear power to the max. This is the only way we can get energy costs again, and it’s all these pesky environmentalists who are keeping us from doing that.” Given that political climate, what do you think are the chances of something like this passing?
Bricker: Let me tell you what happened. Our people did a poll in which ixty-eight percent of the population of California favors what we’re doing. They even did a poll when they beat up on themselves on purpose, in the form in which they asked the questions, and it only changed the point margin by one to five points, depending on the issue discussed and the issue that was asked. So right now — and one of the reasons why Big Power is really paranoid about this, and they’ve dumped so much money into this and come up with so many falsities and half-truths — is that they want to try as best they can to change the thinking of the public in terms of what the public really, inherently knows what must be done.
You know as well as I do how long it would take to get an insignificant amount of oil [from domestic sources] on line, and how much that would really ultimately effect the cost at the gas tank. The answer is getting Detroit off its ass — like it should have done after the last gas crisis in the 1970’s — and come up with some meaningful solutions to transportation.
Zenger’s: That certainly doesn’t sound like the polls I’m reading, which say that 70-plus percent of Americans — and, at this point, for the first time in years, a majority of Californians — are telling pollsters that they want to see offshore drilling, and they don’t care whether or not it’s in environmentally sensitive areas. It sounds very much to me like this country is really on a gasoline “jones,” and they’re going to their pushers. They’re not saying, “Cut us back.” They’re saying, “Get us more.”
Bricker: However, I would venture to say that if you were to ask them what would be better — if you were to ask them what they thought about coming up with a plan that would make them independent of fossil fuel you would see that 68 percent margin going in that direction. Offshore drilling, opening the oil reserves in Alaska, and all the rest of that stuff is not the answer. That isn’t where we should be putting our energy or our direction. In the amount of time for all of that fuel to come on line, and with the comparably insignificant difference as to what it would make in terms of what something would cost, it’s better for us to take that energy and to take the direction so we would take the same amount of effort it would take to drill, and put it into solutions for our future and for our kids’ future.
The difference between biomass and fossil fuel is that biomass balances itself out because it’s putting oxygen into the atmosphere, and when it decays it’s providing energy. But with fossil fuel, you’re taking stuff that never did that. It’s sitting in the belly of our earth, and it’s stuff that, once it’s burned, has no countervailing effect whatsoever. It just burns and dumps crap into the atmosphere. What more can I say?
Zenger’s: Well, there’s the other argument that I’ve heard that’s part of this propaganda campaign that says, “You want electric cars? You’ve got to build nukes to produce the electricity to make the cars go.”
Bricker: Why should that be an argument? There’s a fallacy there. I’m not getting the logic. Building a nuclear power plant in order to provide the energy it takes to power a car. We’re still going to have to be able to produce something. Eleven square miles of alternative energy-producing lands in the desert would provide our energy needs for the entire state. Plus, under these conditions, create over 371,000 additional jobs — at prevailing wages, I must add, because that’s in the initiative as well — plus all of the staff that it takes in order to maintain these things over their lifetime. That’s in addition to those 371,000 jobs. And the citizen doesn’t pay anything in taxes to do this.
Zenger’s: It seems like a lot of alternative-energy proposals get twisted in rather intriguing ways before they’re seriously considered. We were told for decades that you could extract ethanol from just about any form of plant material, and what’s the big proposal to do it? Take corn out of the food market and turn that into ethanol.
Bricker: Right, when you’ve got things like algae and switchgrass, that are prolific beyond imagination, that can be used in biomass.
Zenger’s: I mean, the original promise of ethanol was that farmers were going to be able to take the stuff they threw away at the harvest and turn that into energy.
Bricker: Right, or even thinking in terms of sugar cane husks, corn husks and all of that stuff as a source. But still, we don’t have to invade our food supply in order to make this happen. And in my own opinion, I think it’s criminal to speculate on our food supply.
Zenger’s: We live in a free-market age in which we speculate on everything. In fact, one columnist in the Los Angeles Times admitted that authorizing offshore drilling throughout both coasts wouldn’t bring more gas on the market for 10 to 20 years. But he argued that the speculators in oil futures would see that as a sign that we were getting serious about increasing energy, and they would bid the price down. Therefore it would lower the price of gasoline immediately even though none of the gas from the oil so drilled would reach the market in decades, and that that’s why we should do it.
Bricker: There’s some reasoning, huh?
Zenger’s: If people want to help, whom do they contact?
Bricker: The first thing they do is go to the Web site, www.yeson7.net. They can contact me directly at email@example.com. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens over a period of time over this.