Tuesday, March 8, 2011
San Diego is one of the solar power, electric car capitals, but our utility company falls short in greenhouse-gas reduction. San Diego Gas and Electric has failed to meet the state-mandated goal of producing 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the end of 2010. We'll tell you what SDG&E says about missing the goal and why other utilities across the state got much closer to the target.
It didn't look like San Diego Gas and Electric was going to make it, and now it's official. SDG&E fell far short of the state-mandated goal to produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. Not only didn't the San Diego-based utility meet the goal, it also trailed behind the efforts of other California utility giants like Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison. Why, in a section of California that promotes alternative energy sources as much as San Diego, is SDG&E lagging behind?
KPBS Investigative Reporter Amita Sharma
I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and You're listening to These Days on KPBS it didn't look like SDG&E was going to make it, and now it's official. San Diego gas and electric fell far short of the state mandated goal to produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. Not only didn't the San Diego based utility meet the goal, it also trailed behind the efforts of other California utility giants like Pacific gas and electric, and Southern California Edison. Why in a section of California that promotes alternative energy sources as much as San Diego is SDG&E lagging behind? Joining us to discuss the issue is my guest, KPBS investigative reporter, Amita Sharma. Good morning, Amita.
SHARMA: Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Give us some of the history of the 20 percent by 2010 mandate. Where did the mandate for 20 percent clean energy come from?
SHARMA: Well, California has one of the toughest, most ambitious, and some might say forward thinking laws on reducing green house gases. And several years ago, the state legislature decided to prod power companies to move away from burning dirty fossil fuels and transition into generating electricity from cleaner, renewable energy. Which -- and I should say that the generation of electricity accounts for almost half of the United States green house gas emissions of so the law required power companies to generate 20 percent of their electricity by the end of 2010 from renewable sources. And then just to give you a little bit of history, a lot bit of context, Maureen, because I know how you like context. You know, it seems to be a direction that the state itself, that the population wants to go in. As you'll recall, proposition 23, which wanted to at least put AB32 on hold, AB 32 is the law that would reduce green house gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. That was defeated in November. So this attempt move away from burning fossil fuels is something that voters are on board with.
CAVANAUGH: And how much lead time did it give the utility companies? In other words, how much time did they have to meet this 20 percent reduction by the year 2010.
SHARMA: Well, in 2002, I think the law was a little bit less than 20 percent, and then in 2006 they moved it to 20 percent. So they had several years.
CAVANAUGH: So what percentage of renewable energy did SDG&E use by December of last year?
SHARMA: By December of last year, they were at 11.9 percent.
CAVANAUGH: So why did SDG&E fall short of meeting this 20 percent goal?
SHARMA: It depends on who you talk to. Critics say the company simply did not do enough to build new renewable energy projects and that they basically relied too heavily on the construction of sunrise power link, that power line that everybody's been talking about, which is supposed to transmit renewable energy once it's built. So they relied too heavily on the construction of that to meet the 20 percent by 2010 mandate. As you know, it's been tied up. Even the construction has started, it's been tied up in litigation. So that it simply wasn't going to be completed by 2010. And it also should be said that regulators in the years leading up to 2010 had repeatedly warned power companies not to rely on the construction of a single transmission line to meet this mandate. Now, other people say that the law itself, the 20 percent by 2010 mandate itself is flawed because it doesn't require power companies to sign contracts for clean energy that cost more than the price of a gas pyre four plant. And all of these renewable energy companies are very new. They have don't have a lot of money, they don't have a lot of capital of so they simply can't produce electricity at the rate that a gas fire plant can. So while the power companies signed these contracts for renewable energy, at the end of the day, they couldn't build them. And 30 percent of renewable energy contracts either got delayed or just were never built.
CAVANAUGH: Well, as you say, it depends on who you talk to about why SDG&E didn't meet the goal. What do environmentalists say about SDG&E missing the goal.
SHARMA: Well, I spoke with David Allgood, he's a Southern California director of at the California league of conservation voters. [CHECK].
NEW SPEAKER: Frankly, I think SDG&E could do better. Dirtier forms of energy, and I can and then kill people. And I think they have kind of a moral responsibility to check their repairs and people around their facilities [CHECK] [CHECK].
CAVANAUGH: So what is SDG&E's explanation for failing to meet that state mandated goal?
SHARMA: Well, it's given conflicting statements over the years. Back in 2007, the company said that they could meet that 20 percent by 2010 mandate within their existing transmission system.
CAVANAUGH: Without this sun --
SHARMA: Without the sunrise power link. Then in 2008, SDG&E told the securities and exchange commission that without sunrise, it was unlikely to meet the deadline. But they did say that they would probably get to at least 16. In the end, they didn't even hit 16 percent. As I said, they got to 11.9 percent. In the company's most recent comments issue the company sited a bad wind ear across the United States , and poor power production by hydro electric plants as contributing reasons for missing that deadline.
CAVANAUGH: Now, the public utilities commission in California is -- has the responsibility of enforcing this mandate. What do the commissioners of the PUC say about SDG&E missing the target by this large amount?
SHARMA: Michael Pebe is the president of the public utilities commission. He was also -- he at least expressed some frustration about SDG&E's failure to meet that goal. Here's more of what he said. Of.
NEW SPEAKER: It's very disappointed. They fell way short of what we hoped would be achieved by that date. All the utilities in varying degrees fell short.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about that. All the utilities in varying degrees fell short.
SHARMA: Well, varying degrees is sort of key to that statement. Southern California Edison is at 19 percent, so just shy of the 20 percent goal. PG, and E came very close as well, they're at 18 percent. So out of the big power companies in California, SDG&E came last.
CAVANAUGH: And what -- so if indeed they didn't make this, technically speaking, none of these power utilities, the utility giants that you spoke to actually did make that 20 percent reduction state mandated goal, are there any penalties that these utility giants face for not meeting the goal by 2010.
SHARMA: Theoretically there are penalties but those penalties don't kick in until 2013 because of a grace period called the flexible compliance rules that the PUC has instituted. So again, they have until 2013 to actually meet the 2010 mandate, and then if they don't meet that 20 percent by then, which they are all projected to meet, then penalties do kick in. But you know, there are environmentalists who say, look, these power companies had plenty of time to meet this. And there are few excuses for them not having met this. I spoke with John white, he's the executive director at the center for energy efficiency and renewable technologies. Of he says that SDG&E could have -- should have been more aggressive about generating cleaner electricity, and that SDG&E should be penalized now. But he also says that it's unlikely that that will happen.
CAVANAUGH: We have a --
NEW SPEAKER: A penalty at the end of the day is very controversial 'cause the utilities whine and scream bloody murder, ask say you can't do this, it's gonna affect our stock price, and blah blah blah. About you in the end there has to be some way of getting their attention.
SHARMA: You know, John white mentions there has to be some way of getting their attention. A lot of this depends on the public. And Maureen, I simply don't know that the public is on top of this, that they're very well informed about what's going on. And the onus really is on us and the media to keep these laws, to keep these issues in the spotlight for the public to understand, because I said, at the start of this conversation, the public is -- or the majority of voters do seem to be on board with the effort to cut back on green house gases. So it is really in the end going to be up to the public to put pressure on the regulators, on the public utilities commission to say, hey, why haven't our utilities met these goal, we want them to meet these goals, what are you gonna do to make sure that they meet these goals?
CAVANAUGH: One last question about this particular mandate and SDG&E. It's now 2011, they have -- there's the flexible compliance rule that you were talking about there, but they really do have to meet this 20 percent from renewable energy sources by 2013. So has SDG&E come out with any other plan that, you know, now we're at 12 percent, this is how we're dona get to 20 percent by 2013.
SHARMA: Well, they've got these contracts, they've signed tons of renewable energy contracts, it's a matter of insuring that the projects from those contracts actually get built, and I should say that the road is only going to get a little bit tougher for the utility companies. There is it ray proposal now to require power companies to get to 33 percent by 2020. So it's unlikely that these laws are gonna get rolled back.
CAVANAUGH: And it just goes up and up as time goes on. The sunrise power link if that were to be built, let's say it would be completed by 2013. Of I know there's still lawsuits and there's still opposition to it, but would that solve SDG&E's problem?
SHARMA: That's a very good question, Maureen. Dish sterling is a solar technology, there are these solar dishes that SDG&E had planned putting out in the desert in Imperial Valley to generate renewable electricity. And they planned on transmitting that through the sunrise power link. Well, Tacera, the company that was initially in charge of that technology put that project on hold late last year partly because roof top solar panels had become so popular and that this dish technology has actually never been tried out on a commercial scale. So that big project that SDG&E was relying on to put on the transmission line as nenewable energy has fallen through. And now that sera has actually sold that project to a PV solar company. So it's unknown right now if the sunrise power link is built whether there will be renewable energy to put on there, and it should also be said that there is absolutely no requirement that sunrise power link transmit renewable energy.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I'm speaking with KPBS investigative Amita Sharma, and I do want to ask you a couple questions about a slightly different topic before you leave. And that is, it's also been recently reported -- you've recently reported on the approval process for Sempra energy's liquid energy gas plant in Baja California. Now, Mexican officials are questioning this gas plant now. Why are they doing that?
SHARMA: Well, rumors have run rampant in Baja California for years as to how and why the facility for the liquified natural gas plant ever got approved. And the reason is that this coastal land just north of Ensenada, had for years been zoned, been planned for housing and tourism. And then literally, not over night, but in a very short period of time, in a very expedited process, the zoning was changed to allow for heavy industrial. Which then allowed the construction of this LNG facility owned by Sempra. Last spring a key part, possibly, of this story came to light. That is, former controller, a former executive with Sempra was fired. And he is alleging -- he has filed a lawsuit, he is alleging that bribes were paid to Mexican officials. Now, with him coming out and making these allegations, I think that has perhaps emboldened a lot of people on the Mexican side to say, hey, we want to take another look at this. It should also be said that Sempra energy has denied any wrongdoing.
CAVANAUGH: And where does that leave the LNG plant right now? Just on hold?
SHARMA: It's not on hold. I believe it's still storing LNG, and helping transmit it into this country. But there are a lot of questions surrounding this. Mexican officials are calling for an inquiry. If there is an inquiry, then Sempra rightly says that any conclusions, any opinion that that commission comes up with is not binding.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, Amita.
SHARMA: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with KPBS investigative reporter, Amita Sharma, if you would like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. Coming up, what are we really saying when we ask young guys to man up? That's ahead as These Days continues here on KPBS.