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What Is Mendocino County’s Energy Plan?

by Darwin Bond-Graham, July 14, 2011

In the grand and tangled scheme that is California’s energy infrastructure, Mendocino County is but a tiny out of the way spur. As a market for energy the county is marginal: according to the California Energy Commission, Mendocino County businesses and homes account for only two percent of the state’s overall appetite for electricity, and burn less than one percent of its natural gas. Mendocino County produces similarly miniscule quantities of electricity through a mere four hydroelectric plants, and the county produces virtually no oil or gas.

And yet Mendocino County is not exempt from the great question of our age: how will the county power and heat homes and workplaces? How will the county fuel transportation, which accounts for a majority of its energy use? How will anything be lit or moved in an age of increasingly expensive oil? How will energy development fit into the county’s overall economic, environmental, and social picture? What’s the plan, Mendo-land?

A county-sponsored working group on energy usage and its impact noted four years ago that the average Mendocino County household expenditure on fuel and electricity amounted to 31% of yearly income, and that this costly bill has been rising. The vast majority of these expenditures are on petroleum-based fuels for transport, with the remainder accounted for by electricity purchases. The source of this electricity, PG&E, is heavily vested in natural gas and nuclear, and has taken only small steps toward renewables, and only then because the company is mandated to under state law.

In all Mendocino County’s residents are spending over $100 million each year on energy produced by major oil corporations and one of the largest investor-owned utilities. As the working group aptly put it in their final report, “This is money leaving the county, money that is not providing services or creating local employment.”

This is an important point because there is only so much time before dwindling supplies of oil and increasingly destructive environmental transformations overtake us. It would be wise to invest this capital, this relatively enormous level of wealth, in a more robust, democratically controlled, and renewably sourced energy system. Some neighboring counties and nearby cities are already taking a hard look at their addictions to hydrocarbon and nuclear energy sources, and studying, and in a few cases even implementing programs for change. For example, San Francisco is close to launching its own public energy authority under the auspices of recent legislation that allows for aggregation of ratepayers (about which, more below). Marin County already is leading the way here, already operating the Marine Energy Authority, and Sonoma County is in the early stages of studying the feasibility of such a plan. Big things are afoot to overcome dependence on hydrocarbon energy, and to neutralize monopoly capital’s control over energy development.

In a few weeks I will report on some of the ideas and initiatives floating around Mendocino County that might point toward a post-carbon future. Before exploring Mendocino’s possible energy futures, however, it might be good to recognize where the county is at, and recall where it has been.

The 500 Pound Gorilla

In terms of energy policy most of Mendocino County is, and pretty much always has been beholden to Pacific Gas & Electric. Any discussion of the county’s energy economy must begin with this overwhelming corporate presence. PG&E owns and controls nearly all the county’s sprawling transmission infrastructure and most of its large-scale generating assets. Since it entered the county 100 years ago by buying-out the small independent utilities, PG&E has dominated both local and statewide discussions about energy development and rate structures. In the process, PG&E has wielded considerable power over the economic and social development of Mendocino.

The sole and important exception is of course Ukiah, one of the few public utilities that has survived inside PG&E’s fiefdom. However, while Ukiah may be the county’s largest city, and seat, the fact remains that Mendocino is a rural, decentralized market. The vast majority of homes, ranches and farms, factories, shops, and businesses are therefore tethered, for good and ill, to the behemoth San Francisco-based utility, subject to the decisions it makes, and the wild forces that drive it.

PG&E has spent untold sums in attempts, often very successful, to capture and steer the state Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), their most powerful regulator. They’ve spent millions more fighting the feistier California Energy Commission (CEC), and combatting the hundreds of community groups and non-profits that have dared to take a stand against anything and everything from proposed power plants to “smart meters.”

According to Paul Fenn, founder of Local Power, Inc., “PG&E runs a political machine that is hostile to the green power efforts of communities in Northern California.” The corporation’s influence is far larger than anything wielded by local governments and community groups in Mendocino County, or anywhere else in the state. This influence is achieved through an army of professional lobbyists, contracted PR firms, its own full-time, in-house employees, and of course the friendly politicians and regulators bought with contributions and lavish junkets, or cultivated with revolving door appointments. PG&E has also relied on the political heft of its employee unions, especially the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. It seems to be part of the corporation’s tacit labor contract. In exchange for good wages and benefits the IBEW is pledged to fund campaigns and shepherd legislation through the assembly that is not only very favorable to PG&E, but undermines all competition.

The brain center of this political operation is PG&E’s office of government relations, based in Sacramento and headed by Edward Bedwell, a long-time company man with a degree in journalism. Bedwell reports to PG&E Corp’s Greg Pruett, a senior VP who previously ran Bechtel’s public affairs office in Baghdad. Bedwell’s immediate predecessor, Nancy McFadden, had been a senior advisor to Governor Gray Davis, and deputy chief of staff for Vice President Al Gore before working at PG&E. It’s these kinds of connections and revolving door synergies that give PG&E power.

Mr. Bedwell’s job is shape local and state policies to maximize PG&E’s control over energy development across the state. In practical terms this means working to elect officials who will be friendly to, or deferential to the company’s goals, and orchestrating campaigns to pass favorable legislation. On the most mundane level it means schmoozing with regulators, and virtually anyone and everyone in local and state government who might be in a position to advance or hinder the company’s plans. So Bedwell and his PG&E staff lobbyists, Valerie Turella and Russell Lowery, together coordinate a larger team of paid lobbyists from three mainline Sacramento shops (Neilson, Merksamer, Parrinello, Gross & Leoni, LLP; Read and Associates, LLC; and, Sloat Higgens Jensen and Associates). PG&E’s people literally buy lunches, order extra drinks, give cute little gifts, all the while filling the ears of Sacramento’s politicians and civil servants with the company’s line on a particular bill or proposed rule. The company’s agents organize conferences to “educate” policy makers on policy issues. Lunch and other goodies are usually included. The company’s deep bench of lawyers studiously scour every state and local bill, ordinance, or new regulation that could affect its bottom line, and send hired guns or company staff to intervene when necessary.

Money flows like megawatts through the gargantuan political grid the company has built. In just the first three months of 2011 PG&E’s office of government relations spent $268,000 on lobbying state lawmakers. One example of an expense: $2,188 dropped at Morton’s Steak House in Sacramento on March 31, to feed a small group of key State Senators and Assembly members.

In the 2010 elections PG&E and its employees shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of it to federal candidates, but much of it focused at the state level where regulation bears most immediately on the company’s profit stream. PG&E hedged its bets on elected official, contributing heavily to many candidates, giving Jerry Brown $127,000 in funds, and then spending more than $46 million in an attempt to ram through Proposition 16, an initiative that would have radically constrained the ability of communities to break free from incumbent utilities. Brown won, Prop 16 lost. PG&E wins some, and loses some, but its political machine never sleeps, continually advancing new lines of attack against what company executives must view as the ever-lingering legacy of public power and trust busting in California.

PG&E is one of the baseline funders in California politics. As baseline funder makes large and consistent campaign contributions, in cash, usually up to the legal limit, to fund not just one or several candidates, but to fund a significant proportion of candidates in any given election year. Baseline funders also shower money on political action committees and shadier groups, and spend large sums to push ballot propositions. A baseline funder is a corporation or especially wealthy person who effectively funds the political system as a whole, thereby securing a kind of status quo in which they have a vested interest.

In the last four years PG&E contributed $7,600 to State Senator Noreen Evans. This year alone the company cut $3,900 to Assembly member Michael Allen, and another $1,000 to Assemblyman Wes Chesbro. Assemblyman Jared Huffman has taken $11,000 from PG&E since 2007.

None of this is to say these local legislators are unduly swayed by this money. It’s perfectly normal in this day and age to take limit-bursting contributions from major corporations whose interests lie within the jurisdiction of lawmakers. PG&E is a well oiled influence machine, duly swaying California’s entire political system. Practically every legislator gets some PG&E gravy. Does it change the way lawmakers votes on specific bills if they’ve received corporate money? Probably not in a direct sense, not often. For most state legislators Jesse Unruh’s words of (hyper-masculine) wisdom probably remain true: “If you can’t drink a lobbyist’s whiskey, take his money, sleep with his women and still vote against him in the morning, you don’t belong in politics.” That said, you not only won’t belong in politics, you won’t survive long in politics without campaign cash, and companies like PG&E wouldn’t cut campaign checks unless they knew they were buying insurance, understanding, and connections.

Proposition 16 was PG&E’s most recent attempt to keep its grip on northern California’s energy economy vise-tight. If passed, the initiative would have imposed virtually insurmountable vote requirements upon any local government seeking to establish an aggregation program. Aggregation allows cities, counties, or any combination thereof to pool ratepayers together, and then to negotiate energy purchases in bulk from any supplier, thereby circumventing PG&E.

Aggregation has the potential to simultaneously address the most damaging impacts PG&E has on local economies and the environment. By allowing local governments to choose where their own power comes from, it nullifies PG&E’s control over key energy development issues and puts these in the hands of ratepayers and their elected representatives. In other words, aggregation, allows communities to oppose investments in natural gas plants planned for the Central Valley, choosing wind, solar, or other forms instead.

Prop 16 was an example of PG&E’s multi-level strategy to attack public power and green energy. As in other instances, when the company fails to defeat a law such as AB 117 (the 2002 bill that established community choice aggregation as an option) through the influence it has cultivated among legislators, it moves next to the imitative process, bypassing the legislature. Even having lost on Prop 16, PG&E nevertheless has put up so much resistance to aggregation that it has helped to scuttle one public power agency in the San Joaquin Valley from moving forward with its plan, and has seriously undermined the only existing aggregation entity in Marin County, while also fighting San Francisco’s launch of CleanPowerSF. The company’s political machine marches on.

A History of Resistance

Mendocino County communities have resisted PG&E’s more ill-conceived plans for decades. Besides Ukiah’s independence, thousands of the county’s residents strive for some form or another of “off-grid” existence in protest, or just a sheer will to remain rustically sovereign. This off-grid dream, however, has proven a mixed bag. Yes, the solar cells and diesel generators have provided many with juice far from the arc of PG&E’s power lines, and cleansed their meters from the utility’s sins past and present, from the days when PG&E distributed coal fired electricity, to the present day imposition of so-called clean energy, which remains heavily invested in gas and nuclear sources.

However, in pursuing individualized solutions, the off-griders have only weakened the political base for movements toward some version of public power or greater regulation of investor owned utilities. Just as with education or healthcare, when it comes to energy the only real solutions are collective ones. The supposedly greener technologies used to liberate homesteads deep in the forests have also come with terrible environmental consequences all their own. For example, there are the batteries used to store solar juice, some of which contain deadly toxins. Then there’s the embodied energy and massive inefficiency in the idea of having thousands of solar systems disconnected from another. There’s also the fact that the poor cannot invest in their own personal solar or mini-hydro systems, making these technologies mostly indulgences of wealthier property owners.

Still though, there’s something to be recognized and praised in the popularity of cutting ties to PG&E’s lines and all the gas-fired and nuclear power they deliver. Perhaps the off-grid phenomenon is best understood as a desire to be free from the clutches of large-scale corporate dominated energy production and distribution?

Important examples of collective resistance to PG&E’s plans abound in Mendocino County’s history. Perhaps the most important victory for the sake of communities along the north coast was the defeat of the Point Arena Power Plant. Dreamed up by the utility in the late 1960s, the Point Arena Power Plant was to be a $1 billion (at least $5.4 billion in today’s dollars) dual reactor complex located on a coastal plain grazed by cows, utilizing seawater for cooling, feeding 1,130 megawatts of electricity into a beefed-up grid to power the rapidly growing cities of the Bay Area.

The Point Arena Plant would have radically restructured Mendocino County’s economy around an identity of being a nuclear energy exporter. The plant would have become the county’s biggest single employer and by far its dominant economic presence. Massive primary transmission lines would have been built to cut across the coastal range and connect to the Ukiah Valley, or more likely south into Sonoma County where city leaders were drunk on growth, busy paving over prune orchards with shopping malls and suburban tracts. And as the successful construction of Diablo Canyon did on the coast of San Luis Obispo County, the Point Arena Plant would have profoundly conservatized Mendocino, empowering Republican and blue dog Democrats for the long-term, giving new life to pro-corporate, extraction-oriented industrial constituencies that were otherwise unraveling with the decline of the timber industry.

The Point Arena Plant also had implications far beyond Mendocino. Defeated at Bodega, the Mendocino nuclear facility was PG&E’s last and best chance to enact a sweeping nuclearization of California’s coastline with no less than 21 generating stations. They would be strung every fifty miles or so between the only two existing nuclear plants at Humboldt Bay and Diablo Canyon. Point Arena was the crucible in a gambit by the utility to nail down coastal sites before public opinions and state laws turned. A Sierra Club publication written by environmental lawyer David Pesonen in 1972 explains the stakes well.

“The company has the Diablo Canyon site at the southern extremity of its territory, a fossil plant at Morro Bay also in San Luis Obispo County, room for several nuclear units at Moss Landing in Monterey County, an option on a nuclear plant site in Santa Cruz County [Davenport], another site under development at Collinsville in the Delta, and a title to the land at the northern extremity of economical coastal power generation at Point Arena. If the Point Arena plant can be completed, the political objective which underly the aborted Bodega project can be accomplished: laying the claim to nothing less than the California coastline for power generation from the Tehachapies to the Oregon line.”

Even though PG&E’s vision of nuclear development for Mendocino County (and the entire state) was defeated by the rise of a strong environmental and community-based movement decades ago, the company has continued ever since to wield enormous power over energy, and water resources, often to the detriment of the county’s environment and economy. The most environmentally destructive result of PG&E’s control over Mendocino’s energy infrastructure concerns the flow of water.

PG&E’s Waterworks

Through its control of the Potter Valley Project, PG&E occupies a key link in the water infrastructure for Mendocino and Sonoma counties. The electricity generated by Potter Valley is relatively miniscule, and had the damns and hydroelectric turbines not been installed in the early 1900s (before PG&E bought out the Snow Mountain Water and Power Company that was responsible for the project), the entire chain of damns and diversion would never have been built as an energy source. It has never proven economical. As a water project, however, the capture of hundreds of thousands of acre feet of Eel River water, and its diversion into the Russian River, is the crucial enabler of agriculture, increasingly dominated by massive, water-hungry grape-alcohol plantations in the Ukiah, Alexander, and Russian River Valleys.

The impact of PG&E’s waterworks on fish stocks has been devastating, with some small mitigations undertaken in recent years. The harm done to anadromous fish begins in the upper reaches of the Eel River. As Roger Dixon of the Upper Eel River Coalition explained back in 1994, “Scott Dam [which creates the storage basin called Lake Pillsbury] has no fish ladder and thus is an absolute barrier to salmon and steelhead, thereby eliminating over one hundred miles of habitat. This problem has never been addressed.” As of 2011, it still hasn’t been addressed; upstream creeks which once bred innumerable fish are today barren. Downstream the Cape Horn Dam, which serves to back up the Van Arsdale Reservoir, obstructs more fish from making their run. Cape Horn has a fish ladder and other features making some fraction of spawning runs successful, but fish must still battle against the harms caused by water diverted for wine plantations to the south, sediment and runoff from continued logging, and over-fishing.

One of the most eager corporations to greenwash its image, PG&E has often used its waterworks to tout efforts of habitat restoration. It’s a bold maneuver, taking a system of dams and diversions that on balance have wiped out salmonids from the Eel River basin, turning this system through creative interpretation into a fertile spawning ground for friendly “news stories” about environmental stewardship. Last year in Currents — PG&E’s company organ with a masthead that straightforwardly reads “News and Perspectives from Pacific Gas and Electric Company” — the utility proudly reported that, “by early December, more than 2,200 Chinook salmon were counted entering the station. This was a record for Van Arsdale — and PG&E’s research and support, including improvements to the fish ladder, have had a lot to do with the surge.”

PG&E sums up its own environmental record claiming that, “since the late ‘70s, PG&E has strictly followed a year-round stream-flow regimen that mimics natural conditions. In fact, flows are adjusted on a daily basis to benefit wild fish populations in the Eel and Russian rivers. Efforts like water-flow, to help the recovery of salmon and steelhead populations here and in Tehama and Shasta counties, are part of one of the largest salmon and steelhead restoration projects in the country.”

It’s an odd salmon and steelhead restoration project on PG&E’s part given that it’s the existence of the dams and massive diversions of water in the first place that have contributed as much, if not more, than any other factor in the collapse of salmon and steelhead populations in the Eel River watershed. The Eel River once saw runs of a half million fish, so counting four-tenths of one percent that figure, as PG&E did last year at its Van Arsdale dam, hardly should be counted as a victory.

They Already Ruined the Rivers, How About Ruining the Ocean Too?

If all had gone according to plan, last month would have seen the first installations of wave energy pilot projects off the coasts of Humboldt and Mendocino Counties. In 2007 PG&E proudly and loudly announced its intent to develop wave generated electricity along the North Coast, and at a sight in Santa Barbara County. According to some studies wave energy could power a significant fraction of the state’s total energy needs. In Mendocino and points north wave energy could be a crucial component of a locally-generated power portfolio because tidal and wave actions are nearly constant, thereby providing a regular flow of electrons. In the Winter, when solar energy is most erratic and weak, waves generated by storms have the potential to juice up the grid nicely.

A company press release put out at the time proclaimed, “the proposed developments would extend PG&E’s environmental leadership by providing its customers with a new source of clean, renewable power.” PG&E dutifully took $6 million in state and federal money and began spending.

Both pilot projects were quietly canceled by PG&E. Mendocino’s sank first in 2009, followed by the Humboldt site last year. As of today the utility is officially out of the wave game. A company spokesperson explained, “As a publicly owned utility, it’s not something we want to be involved in at the development stage. We want to share what we’ve learned and hope that technology moves forward.”

The company cites economic infeasibility of the technology as the primary reason for drowning the program. It’s a funny reason for a company that was a leader in nuclear energy development, the most economically draining, and most heavily subsidized form of electricity generation ever invented. The underlying reason seems to be that the US Department of Energy and state of California were unwilling to shower the project with greater subsidies, meaning that too much of PG&E’s own profits would have to be invested. Hefty dividends seem to have trumped doing good.

The company’s directors have chosen instead to make big moves in natural gas fired power, announcing this year multi-hundred million dollar investments in two separate 500+ megawatt generating stations in the East Bay cities of Oakley and Antioch. Taken altogether this means Mendocino’s electricity won’t be coming from zero carbon, local sources anytime soon. It’ll be zapped up the grid from gas plants like these.

The wave energy projects also met their demise under harsh criticism from some local environmentalists, and fishers who feared, with good reason, that the utility’s version of “green” ocean power might stamp a huge industrial boot print on the face of the coast. Given the way solar thermal development is being handled in the Mojave and other areas today, this impression seems quite reasonable.

Might it have been different had the wave energy projects been under the control of the county or some other entity besides PG&E. Like any other investor owned utility, PG&E is a company that sees communities and bioregions through the lenses of profitable markets and extraction zones. However it might have turned out, the fact is that wave energy technology could be a huge and unique source of energy for Mendocino County. This technology, and the county’s potential economic transformation through some version of it, is being abandoned because of decisions made in PG&E’s boardroom, not here. It’s as clear an example as any of the potential developmental paths being foreclosed on by a distant, but powerful corporation.

Where are We Going?

As it should be clear by now, talking about Mendocino County’s energy past, and future prospects, makes no sense without focusing on PG&E. As it stands now, the shape of the county’s future economy will be determined in large part by policies decided upon by the utility, or as a result of its battles with state regulators and other large corporations. Those company proposals that locals find particularly egregious, such as “smart meters,” or large-scale wave energy, will be fought, and sometimes defeated, especially if the company doesn’t foresee a flow of profits from a specific project. Meanwhile, individuals will continue to chase the dream of being green on their own, installing personal solar and wind systems, and ploughing their own paychecks into building upgrades, generating a few kilowatts, or conserving a few here and there, but doing it all very inefficiently and apolitically. The majority of county residents will remain tethered to PG&E, paying the company to continue building giant gas-fired plants and generally treating Mendocino County as a small consumer market, or occasionally a potential source of megawatts to export from whatever monstrous generating station it dreams up next (perhaps biomass?). Indeed, there are many more possibilities filled with danger ahead for Mendocino County if nothing is done to democratically plan and develop energy resources.

As mentioned at the outset of this article, neighboring counties and nearby cities are pursuing one developmental path through “Community Choice Aggregation” under AB 117. Developing local energy sources through aggregation under a public authority could possibly allow local communities to break PG&E’s monopoly on questions of energy development. It may or may not be a model for Mendocino to follow. There are other options. The forests, the ocean, the skies, farm wastes, and even the depths of the Earth in Northern California hold potentials for developing smaller scale, renewable, low-carbon energy. That would mean local jobs. The key now is not technology, but political will. The question remains entirely open; will Mendocino County make a political move to exert more control over its energy future? Or more to the point, why hasn’t the county already acted?

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