Proposition 7: The Most Confusing

In a world torn by conflict, you might call Proposition 7 the Great Unifier. There have been few moments of peace in the battle that now roils among many good environmentalists over whether to build large-scale solar installations in the Mojave Desert. On one side are the habitat defenders, who want cities to generate their own damn power on their own bare rooftops instead of chewing up their pristine desert with parabolic reflectors; on the other side, national environmental groups like the Sierra Club argue that solar can find a place in the desert where it won’t threaten the bighorns. They complain that without large-scale solar, we’ll never be weaned off coal. The icecaps will be doomed.

But in this wacky 2008 election season, there’s one thing these warring groups agree on: From Sierra Club to desert-wildlife advocate, everybody except for the authors and the three Nobel Prize winners quoted in the yes-on-Prop.-7 commercials hates the initiative. Formally known as the “Solar and Clean Energy Act of 2008,” the measure has drawn fire from private and municipal utilities, solar entrepreneurs and every group from the West Hollywood Young Democrats to the Log Cabin Republicans. Even the California Grocers Association despises it.

So what’s the big deal? The authors of the ballot measure, Arizona billionaire Peter Sperling and former San Francisco Supervisor Jim Gonzalez, only want to fast-track California’s already ongoing renewable-energy transition, which many people agree is not moving as fast as it could be (33 percent by 2020? Come on). Prop. 7 would require that California utilities get 40 percent of their energy from renewable sources — wind, solar and geothermal — by 2020, and half by 2025. It would limit the impact on your electric bill to a 3 percent increase, and put checks in place to make sure utilities were weighting their portfolios properly.

But it would also seem to imply that new renewable projects of less than 30 megawatts shouldn’t factor into the official renewable mix, which is odd, since 30 million watts might be small for a nuclear reactor, but it’s actually a pretty decent-sized solar installation. (You need about 2,000 to 5,000 watts to power your house.) Ninety-five percent of the state’s solar power comes from small installations; Proposition 7 would discourage those.

Or would it? “You’re looking at an interpretation some people have,” says Jim Metropulos, a senior advocate for the Sierra Club, which opposes the measure. “Other lawyers have looked at it and said they count them.” (Proponents of the measure sued to remove language on the opponents’ side of the ballot argument that says small providers wouldn’t be counted, but a judge denied the petition.)

Which gets to the crux of the Prop. 7 problem: “It’s just poorly drafted,” Metropulus says. No one thinks Prop. 7 makes a greedy grab at public resources, the way T. Boone Pickens’ Proposition 10 hands out money to the natural-gas lobby. It’s just inexplicably dumb.

Sperling and Gonzalez have argued that Prop. 7’s opponents are in the pockets of the big utilities, but that can hardly be said of people like Donna Charpied, a policy advocate for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. Charpied and her husband, Larry, jojoba farmers in Desert Center, believe the measure’s 30-megawatt limit will doom them to ever-larger solar projects sucking their water and blocking their views. So far, large-scale solar has been slated for 30,543 acres of desert near the Charpieds, on the eastern border of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Prop. 7 might make a few people feel better, but we think it’s a disaster,” Charpied says. “If all those projects go through, Joshua Tree can kiss its sweet ass goodbye.”