Fossil Fooling: How California Utilities Hide Dirty Power - April 20, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Fossil Fooling: How California Utilities Hide Dirty Power

The pride of piloting a green-friendly luxury item aside, the power driving the electric Teslas hissing down California streets and highways — and lighting up the portfolio of investors holding the Silicon Valley darling — is, mostly, gas. Natural gas, that is, which generates almost 45 percent of the state's electricity, more than any other source.

If you were to drive any kind of vehicle down Highway 1 to Monterey, you'd pass by the Moss Landing power plant, which burns enough gas to generate more electricity than the Diablo Canyon nuclear station, splitting atoms on a fault line farther south near San Luis Obispo.

If you factor in coal, 52 percent of the electricity sold in California is derived from fossil fuels, according to the utilities who sell it — at least as far as they can say.

More likely, as much as two-thirds of the electricity in the state comes from fossil fuels.

About 15 percent of the power used in the state comes from “unspecified sources,” according to the California Energy Commission, meaning the utility which sells the power says it cannot account for the source. Coal, gas, hamster wheels — they do not know.

While it sounds shady, it's perhaps understandable, given the complex nature of the power grid. Multiple utilities draw power from networks spread over multiple states, in coverage areas that look as if they were gerrymandered by a spider tripping on acid. Environmental watchdogs are convinced that most of the “unspecified” power is almost certainly fossil fuels, meaning Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious goal of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 is still a long way off.

And it could be harder to hit, as more “mystery” power could soon be coming. Only two-thirds of the energy used in California is generated in-state, and the state's population continues to grow — and not build new power stations (or housing).

To meet demand, Portland, Ore.-headquartered PacifiCorp, an energy company that burns mostly coal owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, is currently moving to join the state energy marketplace. (Specifically, it aims to join an entity called the California Independent System Operator, or Cal-ISO, which manages 80 percent of the energy used in the state).

While having PacifiCorp energy available could allow consumers (and Teslas) to access wind farms in Wyoming, the cost of running the electricity that distance is high, perhaps too high to be viable. There would also be less state oversight over sources of energy — and meanwhile, power from more low-cost coal plants across the West would also be available to power homes, smartphones, and Teslas, according to an analysis conducted by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

PacifiCorp is supposed to submit a plan to join the state marketplace later this year. “It's potentially a really bad idea,” says Eric Brooks, an environmental watchdog and advocate for local power choice CleanPower SF — which is tasked with buying local renewable energy. “We need more renewables in California, not out-of-state energy.”