Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle posted an article about California becoming “the center of renewable power development in the United States” as utility companies work toward the state-mandated 20% by 2010 renewable energy standard. Now that one of the primary goals of California’s landmark climate bill is on track, legislators are setting their sights even higher — State Senator Simitian just introduced legislation that would require California to get 33% of its power from renewable sources by 2010.
This is great news. California’s AB 32 is by far the strongest climate legislation in the country and is clearly succeeding in reducing emissions in the state. In addition, California is leading the way for other regions around the world to enact similar laws that can begin a shift away from high-emissions fossil fuels to cleaner, greener energy sources.
While it is exciting to see California move away from fossil fuel dependency, I wonder what we are moving toward. Who are the companies that are supplying our clean, green energy anyway?
Conveniently, the California Energy Commission’s website hosts a list of “large solar energy projects” that includes the names of the companies that own each project. The companies associated with solar projects include Beacon Solar, Abengoa Solar, Solar Millennium, Solar Partners, BrightSource Energy, Imperial Valley Solar, Genesis Solar, NextEra ™ Energy Resources, Calico Solar, and Tessera Solar. This is of course only a partial list, and while my short search didn’t turn up a complete list of solar companies providing energy to the state or a similar list of wind or geo-thermal companies, I think that this list can still be informative.
Of this small group of solar companies, it turns out that most are small, less than half are publicly traded, and many are headquartered outside California. One of the companies on this list, BrightSource Energy, happens to be a subsidiary of NRG Energy. NRG is well-known to anti-coal activists because the company owns both existing and proposed coal-fired power plants across the country, including a large new plant that has caught the attention of climate activists in Texas. Additionally, NRG is involved in the development of highly controversial carbon capture and sequestration projects and the expansion of nuclear facilities.
My point in highlighting BrightSource Energy’s relationship to NRG is not to fault a fossil fuels company for moving into the renewable energy market. There is money to be made in renewable energy development, and it’s not surprising that both existing and new energy companies are scrambling to fill the growing demand. Rather, I think it is critical that as the renewable energy industry grows in stature and influence, we keep their power over our political systems in check.
The oil, gas and coal industries spend millions of dollars every year on lobbying, advertising and political donations and have played a huge role in slowing legislation and regulations aimed at transitioning our society away from dirty energy. Right now, renewable energy companies don’t have the same stranglehold over our democratic systems that the fossil fuels industries do. Stories of coal companies buying judges to influence court cases don’t yet apply to companies developing wind farms or solar arrays. However, just because a company is “green” doesn’t mean it would not try to obstruct the judicial system, bankroll a misleading ad campaign, or put heavy-handed pressure on elected officials.
The fight over climate policy is an incredibly huge indicator that corporations have far too much power in our society. While shifting to green energy is necessary, it is also necessary to look at corporations as the source of the problem. It is critical that movements to stop climate change also participate in efforts to roll-back corporate influence. The SEIU campaigns to organize workers employed by major industries are one example, organizations working to keep corporate money out of politics are another. Of course, the Rainforest Action Network also tirelessly campaigns on some of the world’s most destructive corporations.
As the fossil fuels industry (hopefully!) fades from power and the renewable energy industry takes its place, we need to work to make sure that we don’t find ourselves at the mercy of a cleaner and greener — but just as severe — corporate lobbying campaign in the future.