Berkeley Greenwashing and Bla Bla Bla

Update: if you want to hear about a community which is working toward actually delivering 100% renewable energy (i.e. on an hourly basis), listen to this great interview with Peninsula Clean Energy’s Jan Pepper.

Greenwashing is a spectrum. It goes from totally reprehensible (oil companies), to wishful thinking by otherwise well intentioned people. And these days, who doesn’t want a little wishful thinking?

But as Greta Thunberg says, it’s still just bla bla bla.

And it can be really bad (for the planet) when people believe it.

Berkeley, where I live, has been trumpeting a new climate achievement: we’ve now switched all our residents and businesses over to a ‘100% wind + solar renewable energy plan,’ provided by our local energy buying co-op, East Bay Community Energy (EBCE).

The thing is, there’s a little hand waving in this claim. The actual electricity we consume comes from the same grid as the rest of California, which is still 65% generated by non renewables (more after sunset… see the real time data). So to buy this claim, you have to believe we can offset the dirty electrons we consume in Berkeley by adding clean electrons elsewhere in the system. Kind of like paying to offset your carbon emissions from your flights.

The other thing is that EBCE can’t yet buy enough renewable energy to match Berkeley’s hourly consumption, which is mostly after 4pm when solar fades from the grid. The wind doesn’t blow every night in California, and there’s not enough wind power here anyway (utility-scale wind and solar are both going slow in California due to local political opposition, foot-dragging in Sacramento, environmental reviews and permitting delays, etc). So EBCE buys what it can, but can’t currently match Berkeley’s consumption hour for hour with 100% wind plus solar.

Not to worry, my grid-expert friends tell me. The ‘100% wind + solar’ claim may not be strictly true today, but it will be in a couple years when there’s more wind and battery capacity available. The EBCE folks are good people, doing their best to help decarbonize California’s grid faster.

Ok, I buy that. But unfortunately it doesn’t end there.

Mission Accomplished!

Here’s an item from Mayor of Berkeley’s latest (Nov. 2022) Newsletter:

Wow – Berkeley has achieved our climate goals as a city twenty three years ahead of schedule!

This is what city leaders would like you to believe, and it’s greenwashing.

Reading proclamations like that, you’d never know Berkeley is badly lagging in putting solar atop its municipal buildings or decarbonizing its transportation fleet; we’re still ‘studying’ all that stuff, while re-committing to fossil fueled infrastructure for years or decades to come. Not to mention our continued foot-dragging over bicycle infrastructure, dense housing near transit, etc.

Instead, it sounds like we’re done on climate, and takes the heat off the mayor and city council to do more, like:

Scaling up local rooftop solar, storage, and microgrids: By putting solar on city rooftops and parking lots, with storage, we can move toward being truly 100% renewable much faster. How many of Berkeley’s municipal buildings or parking lots have solar panels today? Almost none.

Decarbonizing buildings and transportation. How much of Berkeley’s $700+ million annual budget (city plus BUSD) do we spend on decarbonizing our existing municipal buildings and vehicles? I think not much at all.

Paying attention to how and when we consume energy: If we charge our cars mid-day, we’re mostly consuming from a grid flush with solar. But after 4pm and before 10am, you’re consuming from a gas powered grid, emitting tons of methane and carbon. If we turned the heat at the city’s two overheated outdoor pools down a few degrees, we’d burn tons less methane gas to heat them. The list goes on and on… but it’s all hard work, and not so much on the city’s radar.

Just Human Nature?

Call it wishful thinking, greenwashing, or ‘bla bla bla’, this is how we’re responding in the face of great urgency. We want to believe we’re doing enough. And our leaders don’t want to be held accountable for doing more.

Yet we need to do more in Berkeley, urgently.

Which is why this “100% renewable” victory lap gets me worked up. It’s just more political cover for foot-dragging on the things we need to do.

“Hey, don’t get worked up about it,” my grid expert friends tell me, “it’s just human nature.”

And they’re right. But I get worked up anyway!

Yeah… not yet.