“As households adopt rooftop solar, they transform generation and its ownership, shifting away from utility monopolies and making power production their own.”
Paul Hawken, Drawdown
“As far as the future is concerned, it is not a question of foreseeing it, but of making it possible.”
Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Citadelle, 1948
December 17, 2019 will be remembered as an important day in the history of Redding, California, and its relationship with the planet on which it resides. For that was the day a majority of its elected representatives on the city council publicly voted to “kill” the best, local hope for non-polluting, renewable energy available to us if we hope to avoid a catastrophic transformation of our climate.
Three councilmembers – Julie Winter, Kristin Schreder and Erin Resner – accepted the Redding Electric Utility’s argument that a fair rate of payment to customers with rooftop solar is 6.08 cents per kilowatt hour when they sell their excess power back to REU.
By contrast, a consortium of Redding’s solar companies had proposed an alternative rate of 12 cents per kilowatt hour as the most reasonable compromise between the previous rate of 15 cents and the new six-cent rate.
Councilman Michael Dacquisto had argued that the clear intent of the council was to ensure fairness for everyone and make sure the rate they established would “pencil.” Dacquisto defined the term “pencil” as meaning the minimum amount necessary to “keep the (local) solar industry alive.” Dacquisto said the six-cent rate failed the fairness test and would in fact “kill” the local solar industry (at least within the city limits), adding, “We can all agree on that.” Mayor Adam McElvain voted with Dacquisto in support of the 12-cent rate.
The main reason given by those voting for the six-cent rate was that the previous rate of 15 cents was an unfair subsidy benefiting customers with solar panels and harming non-solar customers, especially “poor people” who cannot afford them.
Dacquisto pointed out that REU said this “unfair subsidy” amounts to $900,000 a year which means the 43,000 customers without solar would pay an extra $1.75 a month on top of their average electric bill. If we assume the average “poor person” in Redding is paying much less than average on their electric bill, we can see their portion of the subsidy would amount to less than a dollar a month. The question is whether this small cost-shift justifies crippling Redding’s local solar industry when scientists tell us the climate crisis requires that we urgently transition from fossil fuels to renewables, such as solar panels.
In addition, as Dacquisto pointed out, REU (and/or previous city councils) have never had a problem with subsidies before this. In fact, the councilman pointed out that REU has 10 different rate structures for specific customer groups, which suggests that those who pay more, subsidize those who pay less.
David Ledger, one of the members of the solar committee selected by the city manager to advise them on this issue, spoke at the public meeting regarding his concerns. He said that REU provides subsidies to low income customers, provides new homeowners with a $3000 subsidy and new businesses with a 25% discount on their utility bills. The cost of these subsidies is passed on to other REU customers. Why aren’t we concerned about these subsidies? The only subsidy REU and the council appear to oppose is one that helps local citizens dramatically reduce their carbon footprint. Why is this?
Could it be because it is the one subsidy that also reduces REU’s revenue? It would not be surprising if REU viewed residential, rooftop solar as an economic threat. The Sun’s energy is free, after all. As more people switch to solar, less revenue flows to REU. But which is more important – REU’s income or maintaining a livable planet for future generations?
Back in 2008, I had a conversation with Paul Hauser, REU’s new director at the time. He admitted to me that he was strongly opposed to anyone in Redding putting solar panels on their roofs because he said it would be unfair to customers without solar. I was stunned. If everyone thought this way, the whole world would continue to burn fossil fuels, which would be catastrophic. Jim Feider, who was REU’s Director from 1997 to 2008 said much the same at the recent public meeting. He stated even a six-cent subsidy was too much and was an unfair “burden” on non-solar customers.
Are Subsidies Unfair?
But is it unfair? As the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) recently stated, “There is a long history of government intervention in energy markets. Numerous energy subsidies exist in the U.S. tax code to promote or subsidize the production of cheap and abundant fossil energy. Some of these subsidies have been around for a century, and while the United States has enjoyed unparalleled economic growth over the past 100 years – thanks in no small part to cheap energy – in many cases, the circumstances relevant at the time subsidies were implemented no longer exist. Today, the domestic fossil fuel industries (namely, coal, oil and natural gas) are mature and generally highly profitable. Additionally, numerous clean and renewable alternatives exist, which have become increasingly price-competitive with traditional fossil fuels.”
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in 2017, the governments of the world subsidized fossil fuels by $5.2 trillion, which includes nearly $300 billion in direct cash payments. These are referred to as pretax subsidies. When we factor in “the full societal and environmental costs,” of burning fossil fuels, the IMF finds an additional $4.9 trillion of post-tax subsidies, according to Robinson Meyer, writing in The Atlantic.
What does this mean? According to Meyer, “The burning of fossil fuels releases deadly air pollution, hastens the destruction of the climate, and (sometimes) increases traffic fatalities. And since all of those things kill people, they also depress a country’s tax base. Account for both the harms and the smaller tax base, says the IMF, and you produce an overwhelming number.”
Every year, for example, about 90,000 Americans die because of air pollution produced by fossil fuels, not renewable energy. This means our fellow citizens, “subsidize air pollution with their life.” Globally, air pollution causes an estimated 600,000 deaths each year in children under five, mostly from pneumonia.
One study “linked 400,000 deaths worldwide to climate change each year,” and predicted this number will grow to 600,000 per year by 2030.
According to the IMF, the U.S. is the second largest subsidizer of fossil fuels in the world, totaling $649 billion. The IMF stated, “Efficient fossil fuel pricing in 2015 would have lowered global carbon emissions by 28 percent and fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46 percent, and increased government revenue by 3.8 percent of GDP.”
And while some members of our city council are concerned about hurting poor people by subsidizing energy usage by solar customers, our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is devastating to the poor. Meyer writes, “The burning of fossil fuels demands the grant of something valuable, not from one equal to another, but from the poor to the rich, from the weak to the powerful. The wealthy can and do burn more fuels, after all.”
According to the World Bank, if allowed to continue at the present rate, human-caused climate change could force an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty in the next ten years.
According to the United Nations Office for Human Rights, “Climate change will have devastating consequences for people in poverty. Even under the best-case scenario, hundreds of millions will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease, and death. Climate change threatens the future of human rights and risks undoing the last fifty years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction.”
They tell us, “Climate change will have the most severe impact in poor countries and regions” and “Developing countries will bear an estimated 75-80 percent of the costs of climate change.” As Oxfam reports, “The people least responsible for causing climate change bear the brunt of its impacts. Poor communities, particularly women and marginalized groups, face the greatest peril.”
According to the IMF, each additional ton of carbon we add to the atmosphere (which comes from burning just 86 gallons of gasoline), adds “$40 of global costs.” Because our global emissions are so high and so damaging (compared to zero from renewables), this alone adds over $1 trillion in costs to all of us.
Who is subsidizing who? Aren’t all of us who are driving electric cars and powering our homes with solar panels, subsidizing those who are burning carbon fuels and irreparably damaging the planet?
So, What’s the Problem?
In his book, The Long Thaw, climate scientist David Archer reminds us of what we are doing to the only planet on which life is known to exist by continuing to rely on fossil fuels instead of renewable energy. He writes that we add 20 pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere for every gallon of gasoline we burn, and obtain a benefit of 2500 kilocalories of energy. As we know, the CO2 we emit will trap “Earth’s radiant energy by absorbing infrared radiation,” for hundreds of years. About a quarter of our emissions will last thousands of years.
Archer writes, “If we add up the total amount of energy trapped by the CO2 from the gallon of gas over its atmospheric lifetime, we find that (it) ultimately traps 100 billion kilocalories of useless and unwanted greenhouse heat. The bad energy from burning that gallon ultimately outweighs the good energy by a factor of about 40 million.”
As far as I can tell, REU and the council are not considering the huge cost all of us are paying as we continue to ignore the climate crisis. We are running out of time. Instead of creating barriers that prevent people from quickly transitioning to renewable energy, REU and our city council members should do all they can to facilitate a rapid shift away from fossil fuels.
For decades, climate scientists have warned us that the likelihood of catastrophic or dangerous climate change increases as we burn fossil fuels for our energy and transportation needs. They set 1.5°C or 2.7°F as the critical guardrail that we must avoid if we wish to preserve a healthy planet for future generations.
In order to achieve this, all of us must strive to live within a strict carbon budget. According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report that examined how much carbon we can still burn and not exceed 1.5°C warming, as of January of 2018, we only had 420 gigatons (GT) of CO2 left to emit. Two years have now passed, and we have burned through 80 GT (40 GT a year) of our greenhouse gas budget, which means we only have 340 GT left. This gives us only about 8 and a half years! If we continue to drive gas-powered cars, fly on airplanes, use electricity from coal and natural gas and raise (and eat) livestock at the same pace as we have in recent years, we will have committed ourselves and our heirs to an extremely hot and hostile planet.
A recent United Nations report warned that if we fail to take this seriously and continue business as usual, the Earth will warm by 7°F in the next 80 years. If we hope to avert catastrophic climate change, we need to immediately begin reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent every year, starting now. By 2030, we will need to produce 50 percent less emissions each year than we do today to avert disaster. Scientists tell us that we have a 67% chance of keeping the Earth from exceeding the 1.5° limit if we follow this course. And in case you were wondering, we need to be completely carbon-free by 2050. One thing all scientists agree on is that we should have begun decarbonizing decades ago. The longer we wait, the more hopeless it becomes.
So, What’s the Solution?
I was recently asked to provide ideas for solutions to the climate crisis. The easiest answer to this request is to encourage people to read Paul Hawken’s Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. And then work locally with fellow citizens to transform our community away from head-in-the-sand, climate science denial and avoidance and toward responsible stewardship of our most precious resource, the Earth itself, whose fragile balance of ecosystems allows life to exist.
In that book, you will find Rooftop Solar, listed at number 10, out of 80 solutions to the climate crisis. In other words, Rooftop Solar is the 10th best solution “based on the total amount of greenhouse gases they can potentially avoid or remove from the atmosphere.”
This is what our city council wants to discourage in Redding. If we can join with the rest of the world in transitioning globally to at least 7 percent electricity generation by 2050, we can avoid 24.6 GT of emissions and save $3.4 trillion in home energy costs. Why wouldn’t we do our part?
In Drawdown, Hawken writes, “Numerous studies show that the financial benefit of rooftop PV (solar photovoltaics) runs both ways. By having it as part of an energy-generation portfolio, utilities can avoid the capital costs of additional coal or gas plants, for which their customers would otherwise have to pay, and broader society is spared the environmental and public health impacts. Added PV supply at times of highest electricity demand can also curb the use of expensive and polluting peak generators.
“Some utilities reject this proposition and posit contradictory claims of rooftop PV being a ‘free rider,’ as they aim to block the use of distributed solar and its impact on their revenue and profitability (my italics).
“Others (like PG&E?) accept its inevitability and are trying to shift their business models accordingly. For all involved, the need for a grid “commons” continues, so utilities, regulators and stakeholders of all stripes are evolving approaches to cover that cost.”
So, what are we going to do? The majority of Redding’s City Council members, good-intentioned as they may be, are now on record as discouraging Redding’s residents from getting free energy from the Sun and preferring that they pay REU to provide them electricity that comes from the burning of fossil fuels and eats away at our dwindling carbon budget.
But this can change. We do live in a democracy. We do have options. Each of us has a voice and a vote. We can go to city council meetings and let our council members know that we believe the climate crisis should be taken seriously. We could let them know that we want them to support and subsidize residential solar and wind and any other form of energy that comes along that doesn’t add heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere.
It is not too much to ask. In fact, it is the very least we can do. And it is time. We can change and we will but we need everyone on board. Please join us. Whether we like it or not, a new, brutal world is already here and will be getting worse. Even here in our community. That is inevitable. The next decade is the most important ten years in the history of humanity because we – you and me and everyone we know – will get to decide (by our actions) how bad—or good – the future will be. Future generations will bless or curse us depending on what we do with our brief time on Earth. I believe we will do the right thing. I hope you do, too.