A few enduring classics from the Too Good To Be True department: Eat more, lose weight! Get rich quick! Send your financial information to a generous Nigerian prince and he will pay you millions!
The latest installment comes courtesy of Marin County's power provider, the Marin Energy Authority: you can have 100% clean, green electricity for less than the cost of traditional power.
At first, most marketing claims of this nature are met with excitement - and that's certainly what MEA's claim got from Marin's politicians. They bought the story hook, line and sinker - so much so that they didn't bother to conduct a legally required Environmental Impact Report or let voters weigh in on the idea. In 2008, the Board of Supervisors voted to automatically enroll tens of thousands of Marin residents in MEA's Marin "Clean" Energy plan, and used taxpayer dollars to advertise promised reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
But as with all things Too Good To Be True, the promises never materialized. Now the facts about Marin "Clean" Energy are in - and they aren't even remotely close to what was promised. Here is what we know:
1. The power Marin residents receive is mostly brown system power supplied by Shell Oil.
MCE's original business plan committed to developing local, renewable resources that produced real green energy - but the reality turned out to be quite different. Many Marin residents may not know that the power they receive is supplied by Shell Oil. Shell is one of the worst environmental and human rights offenders in business today - in fact, Greenpeace UK has called it one of the "dirtiest, most regressive corporations in the world."
But MCE managed to look past Shell's treatment of communities in Africa, their mismanagement of pristine ecosystems in Alaska and their terrible record on social justice worldwide. MCE signed an agreement with Shell that has since been extended three times - falling short of their commitment to develop local, truly green power sources.
The power Shell provides is no greener than the power PG&E customers receive. But MCE's marketing clearly states that they are providing 100% clean, green power. So how do they get away with it?
2. Marin Clean Energy is using RECs to hide the fact that residents aren't receiving green power.
RECs (Renewable Energy Certificates) are financial instruments that are bought and sold by brokers across the country. Creative marketers argue that merely purchasing them allows one to claim that the dirty power a community is using is "off-set" - but the reality, according to many experts and environmentalists, is that RECs do almost nothing to stop climate change or promote green energy.
RECs are slips of paper signifying that at one point, at some location in the U.S., some amount of green energy was generated. They do not represent actual green energy that Marin customers use. They have been widely derided as marketing gimmicks that only serve to fund the salaries of the people printing the certificates. RECs are clearly not green energy, and purchasing them does not mean that anyone in Marin is using more green energy than they were before.
Proponents of MCE have used RECs to hide the fact that they are not delivering truly green power, and to claim that the prices the public pays for their "green" power are on par with what a traditional power mix costs. But when activists in San Francisco insisted that RECs be stripped from the energy mix Shell Oil proposed, costs increased significantly. As former San Francisco Public Utilities General Manager Ed Harrington said, "You can't charge PG&E rates and get wind and solar."
3. The switch to Marin Clean Energy failed to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
Chief among MCE's promises was reduced greenhouse gas emissions. But instead of performing an Environmental Impact Report so the public and policymakers can see the program's true impact, MCE has refused to conduct one. And even more troubling, MCE has not been reporting its emissions rates to California Air Resources Board.
All the available data points to the fact that MCE is not cleaner than the energy mix it replaced. The power that is being "greenwashed," or papered over by RECs, comes from brown fossil fuels. There is no evidence that it is any greener than what customers were receiving before.
The good news is that eventually, even the most egregious and misleading marketing claims are tested and the facts come to light. After some severe buyer's remorse and, sometimes, government intervention, the scam and the people behind it are sent packing.
Unfortunately, that's where we find ourselves in Marin. And while we understand the reticence to continue working with PG&E, unlike MCE, PG&E is a major utility that is held accountable by state law. Politicians interested in truly clean power might care to know that PG&E is rolling out a green option that provides real, measurable green power that is produced in state.
As the head of a union with workers at PG&E, I know they are far from perfect - we have gone head to head with them many times and often disagree. And when PG&E tried to use RECs to greenwash a power program that wasn't truly clean, we held their feet to the fire - and won.
Marin residents deserve better than inflated marketing claims and programs that don't deliver - they deserve the facts about real green energy. If you agree, sign our petition today.