Marin clean energy: Is it really a cheap and green alternative or is it another green boondoggle?

Marin clean energy sounds too good to be true: it’s both cheap and green. Please help me determine whether it’s for real or is just a green boondoggle.

Solar Cell Marin Clean EnergyToday’s Marin IJ, our local newspaper, has an article celebrating the fact that 4,354 solar panels, installed at a cost of $5.5 million, will start generating energy for three hundred homes that will pay about $130 per month for this clean, renewable energy. The energy will be delivered through MCE (formerly Marin Clean Energy), an entity that claims to provide cheap renewable energy to those who have signed on.

I have to say, this makes no sense to me. As I understand it, one of the main problems with “green” or “renewable” energy is that it’s not cost-effective. It certainly hasn’t been cost-effective in Germany.

If it were cost-effective (or so my thinking goes), people would be lining up to buy it instead of having to be bribed with government incentives. Moreover, unless things have changed a lot in the last eight years, money that goes into green businesses tends to enrich a few people (Al Gore and some Obama friends), while vanishing into a sinkhole as far as everyone else is concerned.

A lot of the time, indeed, all this green energy stuff seems like welfare for rich people. I’ve blogged before about the disgrace of electric car subsidies for rich people, a situation that has changed only slightly in the past few years. (California is now offering slightly larger incentives to lower-income people, although it’s still a wealth transfer to people with more, rather than less, money.)

I did a little digging to try to understand the financing for a $5.5 million investment that might get around $130 a month from 300 households, a sum that has to pay down past debt and fund operating costs. As best as I can tell, MCE does this by trading “renewable energy certificates.” These certificates can be bundled, says the same article.

Whoa! Bundled?! For me, that’s a loaded term. It makes me think of political bundling whereby Democrat party operatives buy their way into power by forcing their employees to give to a specific candidate.

The term “bundled” also makes me think of all the bundling that went on with the lousy mortgages Democrats forced banks to issue. The banks protected themselves against the losses by bundling and selling the loans. This worked in much the same way as the South Sea Bubble or Holland’s Tulipmania or the land rush in Florida in the 1920s, which is to say it didn’t work at all. It just looked as if it was working until all the bills came due. Bundling just never seems to work out well for the little guy.

All of the above, though, is mere supposition on my part. I really don’t understand what’s going on financially. I’m just seeing something that, on the surface, doesn’t make economic sense to me. Moreover, when I dig into it, it has the smell of past scams.

The only thing that leads me to believe my suspicions might have some basis is that the same article to which I linked above, the one about renewable energy certificates, also reports that critics are contending that “Marin Clean Energy and other purchasers of those credits, such as the city of Palo Alto, Cisco Systems Inc. and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, are using paper certificates to ‘greenwash’ their energy.” Among the critics are a union representing PG&E, so these critics have skin in the game and may not be totally objective about the program themselves.

My suspicions, though, are based mostly on a gut feeling. They certainly do not prove or, frankly, even suggest that the MCE clean energy program does not make sense or that it is a scam. There’s a strong possibility that I’m completely off base to feel as I do.

This post, therefore, is a request to my readers to help me understand what’s going on here. Is this clean energy deal a scam? Or is it a real thing that will eventually turn a profit while keeping prices low and air clean? If the former, I’m not surprised. If the latter, if clean energy really can be delivered cheaply, that’s wonderful, and the project should be copied in as many parts of the country as possible.

Thanks in advance for any information you can provide.

Photo credit:Solar Cell” by Thomas Kohler. Creative Commons; some rights reserved.