Mendo’s Backward Energy Plan

by Darwin Bond-Graham, September 7, 2011

Mendocino County has a plan for how it will power its communities and economy far into the future. It’s written into several chapters of the county’s newly updated General Plan. Unfortunately it’s mostly planning by means of inertia: patterns of the present weigh heavily upon the future, as it’s imagined. The General Plan’s recommendations for energy development policies and initiatives are rife with qualifications like “should,” “consider,” “promote,” and “encourage,” all of which are synonyms in government for “do little to nothing.”

The Supervisors, at least those who were on the board in 2007 when the General Plan was last updated, and staff in the Planning Department, seem mostly satisfied with the status quo. As I outlined in my last AVA piece on energy, the status quo is unsustainable and undesirable. Mendocino County communities import nearly all their electricity and gas through PG&E, and rely on increasingly expensive gasoline and diesel to fuel transportation. PG&E purchases or generates electricity primarily from large-scale gas-fired and nuclear power plants, or the hydroelectric dams that have done so much to kill off fish populations and damage watershed ecosystems. PG&E is also fast becoming an importer of “fracked” natural gas. And oil is only going to become more expensive. Mendocino has very few energy sector jobs, and literally hundreds of millions of dollars are being extracted from the county each year to pay PG&E bills and fill up fuel tanks.

While Sacramento is moving to implement laws, regulations, tax credits, and infrastructure programs that will dramatically reshape how energy is produced and used in in the state, it’s up to Mendocino County to determine the specific course of its future. It’s largely up to local communities, cities, and counties to take advantage of these new laws and programs that can, if seized upon, create good local jobs producing clean energy.

To give them credit, staff in the County’s Planning office seem to understand that trouble lies ahead. The General Plan’s introduction contains acknowledgements that, “the county’s widely separated cities and towns make it necessary for many residents to travel long distances to work, shop and recreate. Fuel costs are therefore a major concern to residents and businesses.” The Plan also notes that, “as of 2009 most of the county’s current energy resources originate outside of the county,” creating “a vulnerability to events occurring far beyond its borders and influence.”

And yet the County is doing very little to address these problems, problems that are fast becoming crises.

What does the General Plan prescribe? Some helpful policies are included. There’s a requirement for the County to “map and protect resources and areas that may provide opportunities for energy production, such as geothermal reserves and solar easements,” and several helpful changes to the County’s zoning code and permitting processes to make it possible, or easier, for property owners to pursue small-scale renewable energy projects.

Unfortunately that’s about as far as the General Plan goes. The lack of vision and initiative the County General Plan suffers from is ironic considering Mendocino’s self-styled image as a mecca of eco-conscious, and libertarian dreamers and doers set on sustainability and independence. What the General Plan (and County political leadership) is missing is a clear call to take collective action toward an energy future centered around large-capacity, renewable energy generation and distribution projects that are locally sited, and locally controlled. There is no real political effort to shift the county toward sustainable, independent energy policies through government action.

In fact, one assumption County staff made in drafting the General Plan, as revealed in an August 2, 2007 memo from staff to the Planning Commission, was that energy policies “should rely primarily on market-based solutions rather than County-imposed mandates.”

Bad idea.

Neighboring counties and nearby cities are way ahead of Mendocino, not only accepting that government has a central role in shaping the energy market, but actively pursuing public power programs. Sonoma County is currently developing a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) scheme that when combined with their Renewable Energy/Secure Communities plan (a feasibility, mapping, and modeling study for a locally owned, cost-effective renewable energy portfolio, http://resco.newmexicoconsortium.org/) will provide locally generated energy from multiple distributed sources, some public, some privately owned, for less than the cost of PG&E’s carbon and nuclear cocktail. Marin County already runs a CCA, and San Francisco is soon to implement their own. Numerous other counties across the state are reportedly studying CCA or some other kind of public power agency. To do so, however, one must first accept that government can, and should involve itself in developing the energy system.

The only mention of CCA in the General Plan is made in a confused and unbinding “action item” which calls on some unnamed branch of local government to, “encourage investment in distributed renewable energy resources either through incentives offered to commercial developers or under the Community Choice Aggregation model.”

The problem with this “action” item is that there is no action required. By saying someone or some entity — who? — should “encourage” CCA, the Planning Department more or less has said nobody need do anything. Stranger still, however, is that CCA is one of two options that are encouraged here, the other being vague “incentives” for commercial developers (i.e., “market based solutions”).

Had the County Planning staff, and PMC (the contractor who drafted the General Plan), been left entirely to their own devices back in 2007, it’s likely that CCA, along with a number of other proposals centering on local, renewable resource development would not even have garnered mention in the updated General Plan.

According to Brian Corzilius, founder of the Green Transitions Foundation, “PMC basically creates template General Plans that are woefully behind the times regarding rural areas, energy security, alternative revenues, and climate change.” The firm was hired, Corzilius observes, because “our County had laid off most of their Planning Department due to funding issues. It also seems the mentality these days to bring in outside consultants to make these kind of decisions, believing outsiders know better, while ignoring your own experts/populace.”

Enter the Energy Working Group — i.e., Mendocino County’s “own experts/populace.” The Working Group was an ad hoc, volunteer effort of nine county residents — all with technical or business backgrounds in renewable energy — who lobbied for its creation and then did the hard work of elaborating on various possible paths toward a sustainable, locally sovereign energy future. The Working Group finished its report, “Energy Usage and its Impact on Mendocino County,” in June of 2007, in time for the County Planning Department to review their recommendations and incorporate them into the General Plan. There was, however, much resistance from several Supervisors to the existence of the Working Group, resistance that carried over into the Planning Department and the General Plan.

Unfortunately much of the Energy Working Group’s effort was rejected by PMC and the Planning Department. The then Board of Supervisors, under the leadership of John Pinches, Mike Delbar and Jim Wattenburger, was only happy to jettison any serious recommendations to develop a robust portfolio of locally owned and operated renewables, say members of the Energy Working Group. Other ideas like CCA got only lip service it seems.

In a memo issued in August of 2007 County Planning Department staff member Phil Gorny and Eric Norris of PMC justified their rejection of numerous proposals saying, “a number [of Working Group recommendations], however, were found by staff and the General Plan consultant to be contrary to prior direction from the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, too detailed for inclusion in the General Plan, or unworkable for a variety of reasons.”

Two attachments accompanied the memo. The first included Energy Working Group recommendations that were incorporated in the plan, often with changes made, and prefaced with diluting qualifications like “encourage,” or “should.” This attachment was five pages in length. The second attachment, a list of rejected recommendations and rebuttals was twenty pages in length.

Most important among the rejected proposals was the Working Group’s insistence that Mendocino County undertake studies eventually leading to the development a public power authority, under the CCA model, or even a more traditional public energy corporation model.

The County should “emphasize long-term and sustainable economic and community objectives over short-term gains,” wrote the Working Group in their report, through “the creation and continued existence of an independent energy authority to guide and assist municipal, county, private and commercial interests.” The Planning Department and PMC passed the buck on this, replying that someone, somehow, might “investigate the delegation of the regional planning efforts to an existing agency best suited to handle that responsibility or research the feasibility of forming a new entity.” In other words, it probably means do nothing.

Perhaps the biggest source of frustration for those who were hoping to see the General Plan rewritten so that local and sustainable energy development would be a central part of Mendocino’s future was the issue of whether or not “sweeping changes” would even be allowed. Staff in the Planning Department interpreted their mandate from the Board of Supervisors in a highly conservative way that favored the status quo and virtually ensured that green energy policies would be marginalized or left out.

Frustration with a virtual ban on “sweeping changes” in the Update boiled over at the August 7, 2007 Planning Commission meeting. Working Group members and supporters spent most of their time addressing the Board in an attempt to convince them that “sweeping changes” are in fact what’s needed if Mendocino County is to handle the economic and ecological shocks stemming from carbon and nuclear-based energy. Steve Heckeroth, who has been designing and installing solar systems since the mid-1970s, addressed the Planning Commission on behalf of the Energy Working Group, explaining that simply updating the General Plan’s existing principles will not work. According to Heckeroth the County needs to “develop an energy element rather than revamping policies that had addressed the issues of 30 years ago. If peak oil and climate change are not addressed, our combustion-based economy will dramatically decline.”

“Very little action took place as a result of our report,” laments Brian Corzilius. “The minor inclusions into the General Plan were primarily watered down inclusions. While the current board seems more progressive, no interest has been expressed towards re-examining the report.”

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