Green isn’t PG&E

Green isn’t PG&E

The private utility is trying to sell itself as an ecofriendly company. Here’s the truth

By Amanda Witherell

You’ve seen the ads, lime colored and screaming from the sides of Muni buses, papered to the walls of BART stations, popping up on local news Web sites. “Let’s green this city,” they proclaim in a chummy, we’re-all-in-this-together way. Like any good ad campaign, these broadsides, brought to you by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., are designed to snap your eco-consciousness into thinking, “Hell yeah! I’m going to get right on that!”

And like any good greenwashing campaign, they are also designed to distract you from what’s really going on at the $12.5 billion utility company.

“There’s an advertising rule that’s based on the idea to advertise where you’re weakest,” says Sheldon Rampton, cofounder of the Center for Media and Democracy, which regularly tracks corporate greenwashing. “What typically happens with greenwashing is an attempt to create a superficial image without changing anything the company’s doing that would affect their bottom line.”

Yes, PG&E has the fourth largest alternative fuel fleet of any utility in the country. (That’s if you define natural gas as an alternative fuel, a resource in which this utility happens to have $9 billion already invested. It’s still a fossil fuel and only burns 30 percent cleaner than oil and coal.)

Yes, PG&E is making environmental strides with increased investments in solar, biogas, and wind energy. (But the company will, by its own admission, fail to make the state-mandated goal of selling 20 percent renewables by 2010.)

Yes, PG&E has committed $1 billion over the past three years to energy-efficiency programs. (Actually, that money isn’t a kindhearted gift from the shareholders. It’s mandated by state law. And much of it comes from the ratepayers — see the “Public Goods Charge” on your monthly bill.)

Yes, PG&E has been donating solar panels to local schools and nonprofits. (Less than 1 percent of PG&E’s power comes from solar energy.)

Yes, the folks at PG&E have been loudly announcing all their good deeds. Here’s what else they’ve been working on, a little more quietly.

GREEN IS NOT A SUPERHERO

A recent PG&E television commercial shows children playing with Renewable Energy Man and chanting, “Sun, water, wind” as the future sources of power. But consider:

PG&E’s current power profile is 44 percent fossil fuels, 24 percent nuclear, 20 percent large hydro, and only 12 percent renewable.

As of 2006, PG&E had planned to integrate 300 megawatts of renewable energy sources a year into its overall profile in an effort to make the state-mandated goal of 20 percent renewables by 2010.

In 2006 Securities and Exchange Commission filings, PG&E projected it would miss that goal by a couple percentage points and is relying on the “flexible compliance” that the law allows.

The utility is currently building 1,350 megawatts of fossil fuel–burning plants, which are permitted to emit up to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour.

In December 2006, PG&E filed permit applications with the California Pubic Utilities Commission for 2,300 megawatts of conventional, nonrenewable power sources.

Renewable Energy Man is looking pretty weak.

GREEN ISN’T NATURAL GAS

PG&E is working to secure permission to build an $850 million, 232-mile gas pipeline, called the Pacific Connector, to bring one billion cubic feet of natural gas a day from Oregon into PG&E’s California customer territory starting in 2011. Some facts about natural gas:

PG&E customers currently use 836 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year, or 2.3 billion cubic feet per day. Over the past 20 years, natural gas usage in California has increased in concert with the rise in population — about 1 to 2 percent per year. The new pipeline would increase daily supply by 50 percent.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is considered the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but it’s still a hazardous, flammable material and can freeze-burn skin, crack ship decks, and asphyxiate.

A “small” LNG tanker is the length of three football fields and burns 170 metric tons of fuel (natural gas and heavy-duty diesel) per day. Planners anticipate at least six to seven ships will dock per month at a new LNG terminal in Coos Bay, Ore.

PG&E recently showcased a hybrid natural gas–electricity plug-in Toyota Prius with V2G, or vehicle to grid, technology. Unlike those of other electric cars, the connection is two-way — power comes from the grid to the car, but power can also go from the car to the grid. PG&E has said that if enough people own these cars, each one will be a miniature storage unit of power for the utility to draw on during peak hours — eliminating the need for more power plants. If the utility takes too much electricity from your battery while you work or sleep, you can still run the car on natural gas. But either way, you’re paying PG&E for the electricity and the fuel, and since PG&E electricity is hardly renewable, it isn’t doing much for the ecosystem.

GREEN IS NOT A NUKE

Twenty-four percent of PG&E’s so-called nonemissions burning power comes from nuclear plants in Humboldt Bay and Diablo Canyon. When asked if PG&E is considering future nuclear power plants, spokesperson Keely Wachs said, “We’re not ruling it out.” Some reasons to worry:

One of PG&E’s newest board members is Richard Meserve, former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The decommissioning of nuclear power facilities is set to begin at the Humboldt Bay plant in 2009 and at the Diablo Canyon plant in 2024, at a cost of $2.1 billion, or more than $5 billion in future dollars — all of which you will pay.

PG&E will undergo a $16 million study of the feasibility of relicensing Diablo Canyon (at your expense).

PG&E currently has contracts out for $539 million of nuclear fuel, which you will pay for.

And, of course, PG&E spends millions fighting public power (which is almost always more environmentally sound than PG&E’s private mix). Green city or greenwashing? It seems pretty clear to us.

Originally published April 17, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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