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November ballot measures promise eco-confusion 

Wednesday, Aug 6 2008

The next time your nosy cubiclemate says you should do more to save the planet, call her a chump. If you've been sitting on your ass while she's been panting after enviro-fads, you've earned the right.

Remember environmentally sustainable biofuel, where distillers convert corn into ethanol for cars? That seemed like a great idea — until it turned out that simply burning gas in your tank used less petroleum. What about "renewable" corn-based plastic? Eco-negatory: The stuff's manufacture may consume more energy than making petroleum-based plastic, and when discarded it emits groundwater pollutants and greenhouse gases. Recycling milk jugs, then? Now there's a great way to pollute water and use excessive energy, chump.

This fall two more bad eco-ideas, offered up as ballot propositions, compete for the attention of the smug and ill-informed. One proposes replacing San Francisco's electricity system with "clean" energy, which in the past has meant building a massive solar array in one of the foggiest spots in California. It's a quixotic dream that critics say could cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The other is an initiative proposed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that suggests Californians pay for patching up the ruination of the Sacramento River delta by spending the money we'll supposedly earn by ruining it in the first place.

If you really love Mother Earth — or merely want sneering rights — you're again best off sitting on your figurative ass and voting no.

At first glance, the San Francisco Clean Energy Act, placed on the November ballot last month by the S.F. Board of Supervisors, looks like an eco-winner.

The measure requires that 51 percent of the city's electricity come from renewable sources by 2017, with 100 percent coming from "clean" energy sources by 2040. It also requires the city to appoint a ratepayer advocate and re-examine the old S.F. liberal hobbyhorse of having the government take over the PG&E-run city electricity system. That's an enviro-tossup issue San Franciscans have spent decades arguing over ad absurdum. We'll leave that discussion for another day.

The renewable energy part, meanwhile, might seem sensible — until you start to wonder whether foggy San Francisco is the most efficient, cost-effective place to launch a multibillion-dollar investment in solar panels. (Advocates argue that modern solar panels still work on cloudy or foggy days. They just don't generate as much juice.)

Environmentalists, clean-energy advocates included, sometimes forget that there are thousands of ways to spend money on the cause of saving the planet. Every time households, businesses, or bureaucrats undertake one of these greening efforts, they lose an opportunity to spend the money and effort on a different one. This is a basic economic principle called "opportunity cost," and it's a principle the San Francisco Clean Energy Act seems to make a mockery of.

Ambitious civic solar projects, you see, are nothing new in San Francisco. They've just been held up in the past because they weren't cost-effective. The Clean Energy Act "fixes" that "problem" — not by making it cheaper, but by ensuring that it doesn't have to be.

In 2001, voters passed two ballot propositions aimed at constructing what proponents said would be the largest solar infrastructure in the world. Critics winced: The world's largest solar array? In an island of fog? Proposition B allowed the city to issue $100 million in solar energy bonds, while Proposition H gave the Board of Supervisors authority to issue additional millions in solar revenue bonds.

Seven years later, we don't host the world's largest solar array. Indeed, not a penny of the $100 million in proposed bonds was even issued, because it turned out the electricity couldn't be sold for enough money to cover the cost of installing panels. So it would have been impossible to repay the bonds. By fashioning the 2001 solar initiatives as bond measures, it turned out that solar advocates had included an unintentional cost-containment clause.

San Francisco solar proponents now consider this to have been a flaw. As consolation, the city last year put together a program called GoSolar, which combines city subsidies with state rebates and federal tax subsidies to pay half the cost of installation of solar panels for whomever wanted them. That program stumbled last week, as $18 billion of federal renewable energy tax credits perished in the U.S. Senate.

Enter the San Francisco Clean Energy Act, which removes the previous implicit requirement that solar energy be cost effective. It simply requires a switch to "clean" energy and adoption of vague "energy efficiency measures."

PG&E officials say this would cost billions of dollars. They may be lying corporate shills, but the fact remains that this is essentially a tax hike without limits. It's money that could also have been spent on energy conservation, better transit, more parks, more walkable neighborhoods, or bicycling facilities. Chumps.

On July 17, the San Francisco think tank Public Policy Institute of California issued a report with the seemingly eco-benign title, "Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta."

"Today, the Delta is ailing, and in urgent need of a new management strategy," declares the institute's summary of the report, which was funded by Stephen Bechtel Jr., whose Bechtel Corporation specializes in building massive infrastructure projects. "This report concludes that building a peripheral canal to carry water around the Delta is the most promising way to balance two critical policy goals: reviving a threatened ecosystem and ensuring a reliable, high-quality water supply for California."

A week earlier, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and Schwarzenegger issued a press release announcing plans for a $9.3 billion ballot initiative designed to put "us on the path toward restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, expanding water supplies, and promoting conservation efforts."

At the same time, surveyors were placing notices on the doors of farmers who cultivate crops in the rich loam in the delta land north of San Francisco Bay. The surveyors were helping prepare for a new version of an old plan by which additional Sacramento River water would be pumped to thirsty Southern California. Why is this environmentally friendly? The Bechtel report says that economic benefits derived from taking more water from the delta could be used to pay for solving that ecosystem's problems.

So Feinstein and Schwarzenegger are prepared to argue that making it easier to pump millions more acre-feet of water from one of the world's most beautiful systems of wetlands, and sending it to the Southern California desert, is good for the environment.

If that sounds like selling off your organs in order to pay your medical bills, you're not alone.

"The bottom line is it will kill the fisheries," says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, campaign director for Restore the Delta, an environmental group. "You can't put a value on that."

Unless you're a chump.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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