For years, the California Legislature, Governor Schwarzenegger and environmentalists have been pushing for California’s investor-owned utilities to get more of the power they generate and sell to their customers from renewable energy such as wind, solar and biomass.

On paper, the efforts have produced great fanfare in the media but on the ground they are falling short.

In 2002, the legislature passed a bill requiring the investor-owned utilities to produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2017. In 2003, the California Energy Commission moved it to 20 percent by 2010. 

Two years later they got even more aggressive and came out with a new plan that said it should be 33 percent by 2020. In 2006, the Legislature put the 20 percent by 2010 into law and in 2008 Governor Schwarzenegger waved his mighty pen and signed an Executive Order requiring 33 percent by 2020.

So come January 1, 2011, almost exactly four months from now, the 20 percent by 2010 goal is supposed to have been reached. Unfortunately the utilities are likely to fall short of that goal.

In July, California Energy Commissioner James Boyd told the Los Angeles Times, “I hate to be a naysayer but even though many contracts have been entered, the actual construction and thus the delivery of electricity have lagged.”

Part of the problem is the need for new transmission to get the energy from the remote areas where it is produced to the population centers where it is needed. Tight credit market conditions in this uncertain and volatile economy have put a damper on financing some of these projects.

But one of the biggest problems has been in permitting and siting renewable energy as some environmentalists have suddenly discovered their “inner NIMBY” and fought against some of the very projects they have been advocating for lo these many years.

To paraphrase Senator John Kerry during the 2004 Presidential Election campaign, “They were for it before they were against it.”

A perfect example of this is unfolding along windy Walker Ridge that encompasses parts of Lake and Colusa counties on BLM land.

The wind on Walker Ridge makes it a prime spot for wind energy development.

In its Resource Management Plan for the area in 2006, the federal BLM identified this site as having the potential for wind power development.

AltaGas, a Canadian company, has been working since early 2008 to get the project permitted and built. They are doing exhaustive studies on environmental issues and are developing mitigation plans to meet concerns.

But as has happened so many times before with other renewable projects in other locales, efforts being undertaken by AltaGas may not be good enough for some in the environmental community.

The local Sierra Club Redwood Chapter and another group, Tuleyome, have voiced their concerns; these concerns could delay or doom this worthwhile project that will meet California’s worthwhile goals.

They both say they steadfastly support renewable energy-just not on Walker Ridge.
Sierra Club, Redwood Chapter Vice-Chair Victoria Brandon said, “Of course the Sierra Club favors renewable energy in the abstract, but each project has to be assessed individually to see how green power balances against ecological damage.”

NIMBYism was never so beautifully and deceptively expressed.

The fact is that wind projects need to be sited where the winds are strong and can produce the maximum megawatts they are capable of, just like solar projects need to be sited where the sun’s rays are the most intense like the Mojave Desert. This keeps renewable power prices to California purchasers as low as possible.

Sometimes the debate on siting renewable energy projects reminds me of the arguments for building more prisons. The “lock’em up law and order” groups demand more prisons be built to house the bad guys. But try building one in their community and they use the same NIMBY excuses that environmentalists use over renewable energy projects.

Everyone needs to understand that there is no pristine way to develop renewable energy resources. Even with the mitigation efforts like those that AltaGas is developing, there will be changes to the landscape. There is no other way.  But if California wants more renewable energy then it will have to make the hard choices of where to put these new facilities.
Environmentalists have been pushing renewable energy for years and they are being confronted with the practical aspects of what they have been preaching. Passing laws is one thing but putting them into practice is quite another.

There is a great disconnect between their rhetoric and their actions and they need to be called on it.

Progress is never easy but if California is ever to meet the ambitious goals that they have set into law, necessary and difficult choices will have to be made.

Walker Ridge is one of those necessary and difficult choices.