California's 2010 Embrace of Green Tech
Voters spoke strongly Tuesday on Proposition 23, defeating it to save California's law restricting greenhouse emissions. What's next? Difficult questions, pinched wallets and other hurdles as California seeks to become a worldwide powerhouse in the green-energy field.
The "No on 23" campaign successfully argued that if California's global climate-change law was suspended, the state's growing green economy and at least 500,000 jobs would be jeopardized. The measure's backers claimed the high costs of implementing the global-warming law would mean the loss of 1.1 million jobs in California. Faced with 12.4 percent unemployment (a 60 Minutes report pegs unemployment at 22 percent), Californians embraced the message of big environmental groups, rich Silicon Valley venture capitalists and clean-tech firms that a green economy would bring long-term economic health.
Now, the cost to Californians' pocketbooks becomes a key issue: Residents may face energy taxes, fees and higher rates to help more-expensive green-energy sources pay their way, public subsidies to help jump-start pricier green technologies and construction, and possible union-wage concessions, as more expensive green industries demand a chance to compete against old industries and green firms in China and other countries.
Clean-energy innovators, who haven't spent much time honing their political skills, will need to woo governor-elect Jerry Brown — who has pledged "no taxes without voter approval" — as well as the California Legislature and labor unions if they're to get the fiscal help they’ll need from consumers, workers and taxpayers.
"They tend to be apolitical, engineering types who really don't get into politics," Joe Lyou, president of the Los Angeles–based Coalition for Clean Air, says of players in California's clean-energy industry. "A lot of [those] folks really don't know how to play the political game, so they're competing at the same level as the old, dirty-energy companies, who have been playing that game for a while."
"The game" over the next several years, Lyou and others agree, is getting Californians to pay more, and clean-tech workers to work for less, to grow the green economy envisioned in Assembly Bill 32, the anti–global warming law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006.
The true dollar cost to Californians is unknown.
But "Everybody has to give a little," says Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies Executive Director V. John White, a longtime clean-technology advocate in Sacramento, "or else we’re not going to get this thing done."
He says California's future clean-technology economy could be "as important as the aerospace industry was to California during World War II," with a new generation of wind and solar projects that "lead the world again."
California was a world leader in the fledgling wind- and solar-power industries in the 1980s but lost its position as Germany, Spain and China became prominent players. White says the Golden State is poised to recapture its trendsetting status.
But critics point to economically devastated Spain as the poster child for how governments fail when they try to act as the engine for creating a green tech industry and green jobs.
Spanish politicians globally lauded their intense efforts, then made numerous miscalculations. They offered too-generous public subsidies to green investors, for example, leaving government programs in fiscal tatters.
Major components of a statewide economic rebound, in White's view, would include California state colleges supplying trained young scientists and engineers to emerging industries, and the state hanging on to green manufacturing jobs.
But, he concedes, California faces key risks. One is the fact that California's global competitors are already heading in the same direction. "The big questions are, can we capture the manufacturing of solar panels and the rest, and where is this stuff going to be built?"
Jeffrey Richardson, co-founder of Imani Energy in Los Angeles, wants to build solar panels at a factory in South Los Angeles. He doesn’t want the green economy to bypass lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color — two voter groups that weren't too interested in the Proposition 23 ballot battle, which emerged as a partisan war largely limited to California's whiter, richer classes.
"You need to create change where change is needed the most," he says, "so you have to start with poor people."
Richardson, who founded his company in 2008, is scouting for a factory location and seeking more investors but says Los Angeles City Hall could be "more business-friendly."
A former union organizer, Richardson says he's more than willing to work with unions. But he'll be seeking lower wages for his green workers.
Salaries need to be "balanced" so his company can effectively compete, for example, with foreign solar-panel manufacturers. "We completely support living-wage jobs and good benefits," Richardson says, "but there's cheap labor in China and elsewhere."
Environmentalists face their own dilemmas now that California's thicket of greenhouse–gas emissions rules under AB 32 are free to go into effect.
Marcia Hanscom, a Los Angeles–based wetlands activist and longtime environmentalist, says there are "big battles" inside the environmental movement over whether clean technology is, sometimes, "replacing one poison with another."
One example of the backlash is unfolding at Cape Cod, whose infamously left-leaning inhabitants, fishermen and wealthy citizenry have bitterly fought the nation's biggest wind farm in Nantucket Sound. And in Los Angeles, working-class and middle-class residents in the historically liberal enclave of Montecito Heights recently rose up against a large solar-panel array that, without warning, took over an empty hillside.
Hanscom says green technology still brings with it unknowns and potential problems. She's concerned about harnessing natural resources such as tides and biomass for use as energy sources. "There are a lot of things we don’t know about these technologies," she says. "You have to look at the impacts for anything we do on this Earth."
Clean-air activist Lyou also says there's "absolutely" a danger of supposedly clean-tech companies misrepresenting their products and emission-reduction outcomes, a marketing tactic known as "greenwashing." "You realize they’re not exactly backing up the environmental claims they’re making," Lyou says.
Nevertheless, he's upbeat, saying new industries could help California get out of its "economic doldrums."
Some environmentalists don’t see the need for caution.
Sierra Club spokesman David Graham-Caso, when asked about the concern that clean technologies could introduce new environmental problems, insists that's "not on my radar" and such outcomes would be "surprising." Only when pressed does Graham-Caso add, "There needs to be careful oversight, just like for any other industry, so the citizens and the environment are protected."
But Hanscom, who has devoted her life to protecting animal species and wetlands, says, "There are a lot of people on the bandwagon, but there's always a question if these things are really green."
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.