When officials in Marin County, California announced they would form their own public power agency in order to offer residents a cleaner energy mix than the state’s mega-utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation (PG&E), local community activists were glad.
After all, ‘Community Choice Aggregation’ (CCA) is a concept whose time has come – and it is not unprecedented. States like Massachusetts and Ohio have been very successful with their CCA programs, which, in theory, place purchasing authority in the hands of accountable county agencies, municipalities or other aggregates who will actually feel the impact of their decisions, thus making long term investment in renewable electricity more likely. In Marin, such a move would also move the county closer to coming into compliance with California’s ‘Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006’ (AB 32).
But, somewhere on its road to ‘green-ness,’ Marin County lost its way.
Shell Energy North America – Marin’s Dirty Deal for ‘Clean Energy’
It was late 2009 when Marin County announced that its energy authority had unanimously approved a five-year contract with Shell Energy North America (a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell) to supply the county with the electricity it would need to compete with Marin’s current utility, PG&E.
The contract, said county officials, was "a means to a greater end." They reassured investors and city council members that once the county was generating its own revenues, it would have the necessary revenue stream to invest in renewable energy projects without Shell. And, as one local newspaper put it, "While some council members voiced concerns and reservations about the ambitious cutting-edge program not one suggested the city should withdraw from the joint powers authority by the Jan. 12 deadline."
The news didn’t seem to phase local community activists either. Not a word from their ranks about the profound irony of county officials purchasing ‘clean’ energy from one of the dirtiest corporations on the planet; not a press release or even a statement disassociating themselves from the county’s decision to contract with Shell. Instead, they uniformly insisted that the county’s contract with one of the world’s worst environmental polluters and human rights abusers was a great victory – not only for ratepayers, but for clean, locally produced power.
Thus, a majority of Marin County residents were left in the dark about the true nature of Marin’s ‘clean energy’ agreement with Shell, under which the county would not produce any of its own power for at least five years – clean or otherwise. To this day, most don’t understand that, under the county plan, ratepayers would be dependent on not one, but two mega-corporations to meet their energy needs: One (PG&E) would continue to control transmission and distribution, while another (Shell Energy North America) would provide the product.
The Path to Fake Green-ness: How Local Activists Were Co-opted by Corporate Greenwashing
Back in early 2007, a group of grassroots organizers, having apparently made the decision to channel their collective political energy into the county’s ‘clean energy’ plan, came together to do just that. One group of local public power activists calling themselves, "Womens’ Energy Matters" (WEM) even hired a private PR firm to help the county market the plan. However, once the campaign was launched in earnest, critics began complaining that the county and its supporters seemed more interested in promoting their product than improving it.
As it turned out, getting liberal-minded ‘Marinites’ to buy into the official ‘clean energy’ spin wasn’t a particularly hard sell, and by the end of 2009, the county’s version of CCA, promoted as "clean, cheap and local" had garnered overwhelming support from Marin residents. This despite the fact that, as details of the county plan emerged, it was beginning to look as if it would be none of the above – at least to those (relative few) who understood the complex language of the energy business.
Still, a number of individuals and groups – including local labor advocates, the state’s largest solar industry organization (CALSEIA) and the Marin County Grand Jury – did attempt to weigh in on the process. Attorney and labor activist Lisa Maldonado called Marin’s CCA a "bad and dirty deal." She was disturbed by what she called, "the unwillingness of people on one side to listen to concerns without attacking and labeling those who disagree with them as shills" [for PG&E]. In reference to the contract with Shell, she asked: "Are people’s green (not to mention humanitarian) principles so shallow and self serving that they will get into bed with a company that is murdering indigenous activists and destroying the planet simply so they can feel better about themselves as ‘green?’"
In a letter to the local paper, CALSEIA’s executive director Sue Kateley wrote that she was concerned because the county’s failure to include local renewables in their plan had been all but ignored. "CALSEIA has consistently requested that the Marin business plan be amended to include locally owned and locally constructed renewable energy projects and a specific carve-out for solar generation CALSEIA has not received a response to its request."
Then, on December 2, 2009, Marin’s Grand Jury issued a scathing report recommending that, for a host of financial and other reasons, the county should ‘pull the plug’ on its energy plan. The Grand Jury, it seemed, was concerned with just about every conceivable aspect of what it called "a massive experiment in power procurement."
The county and its advocates remained unmoved.
The Grand Jury report, claimed Charles McGlashan, president of Marin’s Board of Supervisors, was little more than "a hit job." As for the concerns of labor and solar advocates (including CALSEIA), to hear Marin’s sustainability planner and chief PR flack Dawn Weisz tell it, these groups couldn’t be trusted. "They have connections to PG&E," she told reporters in January.
So it was that the opposition to Marin County’s CCA was ‘neutralized’ – marginalized and muted by the county and its PR machine, which, you will recall, included the vast majority of its ‘grassroots activists.’
Local CCAs Should Be Boycotting Shell, Not Contracting with It
It is understandable that local activists would climb on board the county bandwagon to support a "clean energy alternative" to the not-so-clean energy mix provided by their local utility. Yet, by allowing politicians and corporate lawyers to contract with one of the dirtiest corporations on the planet in the name of ‘green-ness,’ these local groups may have missed a golden opportunity to empower the community to work toward real transformation and sustainability.
The county’s CCA is set to be implemented as early as this Spring, 2010, despite new concerns that the contract with Shell, as currently being negotiated, won’t reduce the state’s greenhouse gases (GHGs) at all.
Any long term strategy, if it is to be effective, will require citizens to take on – not contract with – the fossil fuel industry and the corporate economy that supports it. Contrary to what greenwashed corporate marketing literature would have us believe, the reason human life on the planet is imperiled is not only because consumers are using the wrong kinds of light bulbs or haven’t yet purchased an energy-efficient refrigerator. It is because corporations view everything – including human beings and the environment – as exploitable commodities. It is because consumption is the engine of corporate profits.
Companies like Shell spend millions of dollars annually to market the environmental crisis as one of consumer choice, not corporate responsibility. This strategy has proved extremely effective in keeping otherwise well meaning citizens from taking on the bigger problem – the corporations themselves, who garner ungodly profits under the current unsustainable system.
Now that corporations have the same rights as people, challenging the corporate state is more important than ever. Without tangible, direct action (ie: boycotts, lawsuits, civil disobedience), ‘green-ness’ seems destined to remain little more than a buzzword, more useful in promoting the status quo than a better world.
Sandy Leon Vest is the editor and publisher of SolarTimes, an independent quarterly energy newspaper with a progressive point of view. SolarTimes is available online at www.solartimes.org, and distributed in hardcopy throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Sandy LeonVest’s work has been published locally, as well as internationally, and includes 15 years in the news department at KPFA Radio in Berkeley, CA.