John Sperling: From Cloning Missy to Backing Clean Energy

Your twilight years probably won’t be spent cloning your pet dog or reforming the California energy market. But then you aren’t a bored billionaire looking to leave behind a legacy in clean energy (and your pup, Missy).

We’re talking about John Sperling, the founder of diploma mill University of Phoenix who’s also been portrayed as “the Howard Hughes of Biotech”. The 87-year-old Arizonian billionaire’s current plan is to back the Solar and Clean Energy Act of 2008 with his considerable wealth. The Californian ballot initiative would greatly boost the state’s renewable energy mandates and streamline the process for siting and approving renewable energy projects.

Many in the cleantech world, however, are less than thrilled with the proposal. “The initiative was put together by people who didn’t know what they were doing,” Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council told the LA Times. The problem, critics say, is that the act’s idealism would set unachievable mandates and accelerate permitting, resulting in a careless, ineffective and loophole-ridden energy system.

Currently California generates about 11 percent of its power from renewable sources; existing mandates require that number to go up to 20 percent by 2010. Gov. Schwarzenegger has also set a goal of getting 33 percent of power from renewable sources by 2020; that measure is still pending in the legislature. All of these goals are still well below the ballot initiative’s goals of 40 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2025.

While you’d think these elevated targets would be something renewable energy companies would get behind, the initiative has met opposition from the likes of BrightSource Energy, PPM Energy, Horizon Wind Energy, the American Wind Energy Association and the California Solar Energy Industries Association.

The new initiative forces the government to complete permitting in 100 days, limiting public comment. And in order to prevent energy prices from rising more that 3 percent, it would also cap the amount a company could spend on a clean energy project. Such proposed controls are tighter than existing limits on fossil fuel power projects.

In the meantime, proponents of the initiative include vocal climate change scientist James Hansen, acclaimed NASA climate change expert. The sponsors claim it has a 75 percent approval rating from the public.

While cleantech companies are usually frustrated by stagnant legislative processes, this seems to be the rare occasion in which an overzealous legislature could go overboard.

Graphic courtesy of the LA Times and Wired.