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Roping the Wind

[whitespace] wind farms Chasing Windmills: The wind farms at Altamont Pass, along with other alternative energy sources, have gone untapped because of weak consumer demand.

Christopher Gardner

Green Energy could power California into the next century--if consumers ever find out about it

By Cecily Barnes

WHEN THE CITY OF Santa Clara paid $3.6 million for 2,068 acres of land in Benicia 17 years ago, it was a risky investment. The city bought the land for the right to harvest the wind that blew across it.

Two years later, in 1983, the city bought another 640 acres on the Altamont Pass for $824,000, also for the right to its wind.

The Enron Wind Corporation leased both spots, and Santa Clara penciled a buyout option for themselves into the agreement--to be used if and when the renewable-energy market takes off. The city is still waiting.

According to the city's senior electric utility engineer, Bill Reichmann, Santa Clara has no immediate plans to exercise that option.

Meanwhile, cows graze on the 2,068 acres the city owns in Benicia. Enron has chosen not to build more turbines at this point. Spokeswoman Mary McCann says the company is waiting to see what consumers decide, following the deregulation of California's energy industry--which went into effect last March.

When that bill, AB1890, wiggled its way toward the governor's desk two years ago, California's biggest businesses stood rooting on the sidelines. Next to them in the cheering box were unlikely allies, including the state's leading environmental groups.

For a brief moment, the groups had set aside their differences, albeit for vastly different reasons. Business interests wanted free-market energy so they could shop for the cheapest power, and environmentalists saw an open energy market as an opportunity to buy renewable, earth-friendly power.

But environmental groups wanted something more. They demanded money and resources to inform consumers about what changed, what "green power" meant and how they could sign up.

When the huge package of bills that made up AB1890 was approved in September 1996, $87 million was handed to PG&E and other existing utilities to inform the public about the change. A measly $5.4 million of energy-education money was slated to spread the word about renewables.

But the legislation did throw environmentalists a huge bone--$540 million to subsidize renewable-energy companies. And while environmental groups are thrilled to have this money, it hasn't worked as well as it could.

Although 55 companies will soon move forward with risky renewable-energy projects funded by this money, many other prospective businesses don't want to invest until consumers show interest. And consumers won't show interest until they know about renewable energy. That's where the energy-ed budget would have come in handy.

This small bundle of cash is the tiny spark set to ignite California's campaign to jump-start interest in green power. If consumers bite, the alternative industry could explode. If they don't, it could flop.

Low Spark

RATHER THAN SIGN the check each month to PG&E--which gets 89 percent of its power from coal, natural gas and nuclear power--consumers now have the choice to sign on with Earthsource, Green Mountain or Wind for the Future, which produce energy through wind turbines, solar paneling, biomass or hydroelectric or geothermal power. Consumers can either shop for the cheapest power or for the slightly more expensive power that doesn't pollute the environment. So far, few consumers have done either.

Of PG&E's 4.5 million customers, slightly more than 1 percent have switched energy providers since 1996, says PG&E spokesman Scott Blakey.

Of those who have switched, only 3,143 have gone to renewable energy. Since customers haven't run to the phone to switch, investors have been wary to spend big bucks to build more renewable-energy plants or launch explosive ad campaigns, until they know this environmental energy stuff is going to catch on.

"So far, there's been literally no marketing," says Lori Jablonski, spokeswoman for the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology. "Except for what the green power companies have done themselves, there's been nothing,"

In an effort to fill this info-void, Kari Smith works trying to drum up consumer interest in renewables. She spends her days with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on her cell phone, traveling between speaking gigs in the Silicon Valley, where she does her best to persuade businesses and individual residents to change power providers.

As an outreach coordinator for the Center for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Technologies, Smith's mission is to funnel green power into the veins of the Silicon Valley's power grid. These first months are crucial, she explains, because companies that produce renewable power are waiting on the sidelines. Once the word is out and a few key businesses have gone green, things will likely snowball.

Most of her talks so far have been brown-bag lunches at high-tech companies. It's a first step, but Smith would really like to see the companies themselves switch.

So far, few Silicon Valley companies have chosen to do so, Jablonski says. Toyota Motor Sales USA has switched many of its offices to renewable and is mulling over whether to switch its NUMMI auto manufacturing plant in Fremont.

"There's some question as to whether there would be sufficient renewable energy available to run a manufacturing plant," says Toyota spokesman Jeremy Barnes. "However, we will be using renewable energy for all of our sales offices and business offices and for a parts facility in Ontario."

The Episcopalian Diocese of California, which has 90 churches throughout the Bay Area, is another organization that will soon go green. And its California contingent is only the beginning. Steve MacAusland, the Diocese co-chair of the commission on faith and the environment, plans to bring a green-power proposal to the church's national office, which oversees 7,000 churches and a congregation of 2.5 million Episcopalians.

Jablonski hopes the other companies will follow the lead of Toyota and the Episcopalian Diocese's lead, and either switch themselves or offer some sort of match program for employees who go green in their private residences.


How to get green energy in your home.


Hitting the Switch

JACK EDWARDS, PROFESSOR of geological studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was the Shell Oil Company's chief geologist for 32 years. According to Edwards' calculations, oil production will reach its peak capacity in 2020. When that happens, Edwards writes, "OPEC countries in the Middle East will again become the swing producers and will control crude oil supply and price."

Thomas Ahlbrandt of the U.S. Geological Survey says his agency's figures show there may be enough oil to sustain the world for another 100 years. But Ahlbrandt admits that these numbers aren't accurate. Many independent scientists predict that a new energy crisis is imminent, and that the world could face a serious oil squeeze as soon as 2010.

Alternative-energy advocates warn that unless new sources of power are developed soon, cities will go dark, cars will starve for gasoline and industry will slow to a shuddering, primitive stop. A thick blanket of carbon dioxide will line the inside of the Earth's atmosphere, causing ecological and weather disasters.

Environmentalists shudder at the thought of blackened air, polluted water and an intensified greenhouse atmosphere. Others worry gravely about waiting two hours at the gas station and paying enormous power bills every month.

Meanwhile, Javier Rios ascends the Altamont Pass and four-wheels across a ridge, checking on his flock of "birds," spaced evenly across the rolling hills. A heavy, ever-blowing breeze deflects hot rays of sun.

Surrounded by miles of thistle and mustard flowers, Rios breathes in deeply through his nose. The air is extra clean up here. "It's because we're on top of the smog," Rios explains.

With a parental pride, Rios pats one of Enron Wind Corporation's 250 80-foot-tall steel windmills, which feed energy into a power grid at the base of the mountain. One turbine, Rios explains, churns out 33 billion kilowatts of power each day, enough energy to power at least one city block. But on other parts of the mountain, cows graze.

If this hillside housed more wind turbines, there would be more clean air for the towns below--Tracy, Livermore and the Santa Clara Valley.

"I could produce more if I had more turbines," Rios says. But until renewable power catches on, that won't happen. Most are waiting, watching the consumer for any sign of interest in what wind-power advocates say could save the environment.

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From the September 10-16, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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