March 19, 2012

CA: Dams would get green credit in bill

The debate over whether large dams are renewable power sources took a twist Monday.

Two Modesto-area lawmakers said utilities should get at least some credit for these plants under the state's mandate for at least 33 percent renewables by 2020.

The 2011 law setting the mandate excluded hydro plants with a capacity of 30 or more megawatts. That cut out Don Pedro Reservoir, the cheapest source by far for the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts.

State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, and Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, failed in their bid last year to get large hydro counted.

They have returned with a measure, Senate Bill 971, that would subtract a utility's hydro output from the total against which the renewable percentage is applied.

Utilities still would have to get renewables from costlier sources, such as wind or solar, but somewhat less than under current law.

The sponsors, speaking at a news conference outside the MID headquarters, said the changes would save ratepayers money and help the economy.

"I think one of the reasons we aren't seeing the manufacturing we once saw is because the cost of electricity is so high," Cannella said.

The renewable mandate was designed primarily to deal with the climate change believed to be caused in part by fossil fuel burning.

The MID and the TID are close to 30 percent renewables, thanks mostly to wind projects in Oregon and Washington. Counting the Don Pedro hydro, which they tout as a nonpolluting source that does not consume fuel, would put them over the mandate.

"We should treat all hydro facilities the same, no matter the size," Olsen said.

Opponents of relaxing the mandate say it would stifle the promising wind and solar industries. They also cite the damage caused by large dams to native fisheries.

"The driving purpose of the renewable portfolio standard is to drive new economic investment in cleaner forms of energy," said Jim Metropulos, a senior advocate at the Sacramento office of the Sierra Club.

He added that the mandate "has not taken anyone's large hydro generation away from them. It's just not called renewable."

The news conference featured Louis and Beverly Witthoft, who had contacted Cannella about their rising MID costs.

"Why should those bills go up?" Louis Witthoft said. "That dam is paid for — more than paid for."

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