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Viewpoints: Geothermal bill will hurt consumers, set back renewable energy efforts

Most Californians would agree we need more jobs and cleaner air. Supporters of Senate Bill 1139 are promoting the bill under these claims. The proposed legislation would require select retail sellers of electricity to procure 500 megawatts from new geothermal plants.

But beware of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

SB 1139 is an effort to produce jobs for the Coachella and Imperial valleys at a very high cost to customers of California’s investor-owned utilities (Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric), community choice aggregators and direct access providers.

The bill would require these retail sellers to buy a proportionate share of a statewide total of 500 megawatts of electricity generated by geothermal power plants that begin construction after Jan. 1.

Yet customers of publicly owned utilities – including one of the bill’s main supporters, the Imperial Irrigation District – would not be subject to this mandate. This is simply unfair.

To make matters worse, SB 1139 would create a mandate for high-cost energy that customers don’t need. How high? By going around current California energy policy that requires competitive bidding and cost containment, this bill could cost families, small and large businesses, and agriculture $8 billion in electricity costs over the next two decades.

These higher costs would cost real jobs today. Contrary to supporters’ claims that the bill would create green jobs, SB 1139 would kill other jobs. If this uneconomic new geothermal energy is produced, some other energy will not be produced.

For example, existing biomass, geothermal, wind and solar facilities directly support more than 4,000 high-wage jobs, many in the Central Valley and Northern California where unemployment remains high. Some of these facilities will not secure new contracts because a few retail sellers would be forced to buy the new high-priced geothermal. The net result is that many local communities would suffer both job losses and higher costs while a few communities in the Imperial Valley reap all the benefits.

Finally, displacing these existing renewable sources could damage the environment. Existing biomass, geothermal, wind and solar facilities reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improving local air quality. Biomass also cuts down on the need to burn agricultural waste. These benefits could be lost under SB 1139.

The bill is unfair, costly, does not help the environment and won’t solve the problems its author and supporters claim. That’s why a growing coalition of consumer groups, renewable energy developers and utilities are opposing the legislation.

For all these reasons, we are united in opposing SB 1139. It is simply bad public policy that would harm the many to help the few.