A Voter's Guide to California's Cleantech Propositions

Election day is a week away, and voters have dozens of state and city propositions to acquaint themselves with before stepping into that voting booth. This year in California there are three state propositions that affect renewable energy and because they’re so important we decided to dig into the details and help you navigate the deceptively complicated language and make the greenest decisions. Why California? — the state leads the nation in cleantech investing, and, well, we’re based here, too. (So, we threw in a look at a San Francisco proposal for good measure).

Proposition 1A: Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond.

What it proposes: In 1996, the California High-Speed Rail Authority was created to plan and build a high-speed rail system linking California’s major cities. The total cost was estimated at $45 billion, funded by federal, state and local governments, as well as private sources. Proposition 1A proposes raising $9 billion to build the section of the rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco and another $950 million for other state and local rail lines.

What it would cost: The $9.95 billion in state bonds would cost $19.4 billion to pay off. Payments will average $647 million per year for more than 30 years. Operation and maintenance of the rail would cost the state $1 billion per year, minus ticket sales.

The lowdown: Proponents cite the successes of bullet trains in Europe and Asia and say construction of the line would create 500,000 new jobs. Opponents say this proposition is a huge burden for taxpayers; the project is over a decade in the making and there’s no promise prop 1A will get the job done. However, large infrastructure investments like this will never happen without public support and the benefits, both economic and environmental, will pay dividends for decades to come.

Proposition 7: The Solar and Clean Energy Act

What it proposes: Currently, the California Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) has set the goal for utilities to generate 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2010, but does not apply to publicly owned utilities. Prop 7 would raise the longer-term goals to 40 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2025 and broaden it to include public utilities too.

What it would cost: While the two sides of this Prop disagree, the likely outcome will be that ratepayers will see a 3 to 10 percent hike in their energy bill.

The lowdown: UPDATED: The proposition makes a number of small but important changes to the management of renewable energy beyond raising the renewable energy goals for the state. It would allow contracted, as well as installed, renewable energy to count toward meeting the RPS requirements; installations less than 30 megawatts wouldn’t count toward the RPS qualify for fast-tracked certification; and it would change many of the regulatory systems that facilitate bringing new green energy online.

The opposition includes big utilities, small cleantech startups, environmental organizations and the California Chamber of Commerce. They assert that the bill will hamper renewable energy development by not counting small-scale projects (like rooftop solar) and adding new bureaucracy. Proponents, pushing the lofty renewable energy targets, include an array of voter groups, funded with millions from billionaire University of Phoenix founder John Sperling and his son.

Proposition 10: The California Renewable Energy and Clean Alternative Fuel Act

What it proposes: $2.875 billion for Alternative Fuel Vehicle Rebates for natural gas, electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles. It provides $1.25 billion for renewable energy research and development and incentives for clean energy purchases. It also includes incentives for green collar job training for cities.

What it would cost: $5 billion in state bonds would cost $9.8 billion across 30 years, adding $335 million per year to the state budget.

The lowdown: Between a lack of hydrogen and electric options and $1 billion set aside exclusively for natural gas powered trucks, compressed natural gas vehicles will likely come away with the lion’s share of these rebates. The prop’s proponents include fellow Oklahoman natural gas men T. Boone Pickens, owner of Clean Energy Fuels, and Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, who have funded the campaign. We’ve questioned the real carbon reductions of natural gas cars before and encourage you to check out our list things to know about the idea.

City of San Francisco Proposition H: The San Francisco Clean Energy Act

What it proposes: Prop H is a charter amendment that would commission a study of electricity resources in San Francisco and give the Board of Supervisors the option to acquire those systems for the city. It would allow City Supervisors to issue revenue bonds to acquire PG&E’s distribution network with no voter approval. It would also mandate that the city generate 51 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2017, 75 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040.

What it would cost: The study and task force alone could cost up to $1.75 million and actually acquiring PG&E’s facilities would cost billions of dollars (PG&E estimates $4 billion).

The lowdown: Proponents claim this will ensure that San Francisco is powered by 100 percent green power by 2040. It could create something like the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in San Francisco. But the opposition says there is no reason to believe the city could better run the grid or secure renewable energy to power it than PG&E. They contend Prop H is a greenwashed attempt to municipalize the PG&E-operated electrical system. The risk of rate hikes and PG&E moving its headquarters out of the city are real concerns, while the promise of cheaper and cleaner power are by no means guaranteed. Meanwhile, giving the City Supervisors the power to take over PG&E’s systems without having to go the voters is potentially worrisome.

Sources: California General Election Official Voter Information Guide, LA Times, San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Group.

Image courtesy of Californians for High-Speed Trains.