Opportunities for Cleaner Air in the Central Valley

Biomass Energy Facility in Delano, CA

Biomass Energy Facility in Delano, CA

For decades, air quality activists and everyone who breathes in the San Joaquin Valley have endured a standoff between industry and public health. Now, with recent efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, we see an opportunity to leverage the focus on climate change to indirectly accomplish what our local air district has not been able to tackle because of a lack of political will. Climate change efforts can be a catalyst for achieving our air quality goals, so advocates should strive to ensure that greenhouse gas reduction measures also address air quality issues.

A relatively new and promising policy mechanism on the scene is Community Choice Energy. It has been described as the most powerful tool available to local governments to reduce greenhouse gases. There’s a lot to learn about Community Choice Energy and how it will connect to our long-standing air quality problem in the San Joaquin Valley.

Once established, local Community Choice agencies take on the role of decision-making about sources of energy for electricity generation. One area that would be interesting to explore would be the degree to which a Community Choice agency might help address the complex issues surrounding biomass energy. Our region is currently trying to figure out what to do with its agricultural waste, following the decline of an unsustainable biomass industry. Feeling the pressure of the growing wildfire hazard from the nearby dying forests, agencies like the San Joaquin Valley Air District and CalFire support reviving the biomass industry.

Air quality advocates know that biomass isn’t the cleanest option for disposing of organic waste and the facilities are nearly always sited in overburdened communities. So how can Community Choice be a part of this conversation? Several possibilities come to mind. First and foremost, Community Choice agencies are public and therefore allow for much greater community input in decision-making about energy. Another is that although Community Choice agencies do not have authority over land-use planning decisions, they can play a role in emphasizing appropriate technologies and locations for facilities that pose minimal risk to communities and the environment. The answer may also be a combination of sustainable agricultural practices combined with a Community Choice investment in clean energies that replace the energy from biomass. These and more possibilities may emerge as we explore how Community Choice fits in with the Valley’s most pressing environmental needs.

Regulators, like our local Air District, tend to tackle pollution with measures that target individuals, like fireplace upgrade programs and DMV registration fees. What’s interesting about Community Choice Energy is that it’s focused on both the individual and municipality. It enhances individual choice, strengthens local control and the leadership of cities and counties, and it has the potential to make a big difference in energy-related impacts on local communities.

Typically in our region, the political climate can prevent any strong measures, but here is an opportunity for individuals to make a simple choice for clean energy. It’s time for our local leaders to begin a public dialog about the potential benefits of establishing Community Choice Energy in the Central Valley.

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