Berkeley is widely regarded as one of the most progressive cities in the nation. And so it comes as no surprise that its celebrated public high school plans to launch a "Green Academy" this fall focusing on the environment. But the relationship between the public high school and its corporate partner and sponsor is sparking criticism even before the academy's doors have opened.
Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which recently has come under intense fire for bankrolling a statewide ballot initiative that critics say would block the expansion of renewable energy, will have a hand in designing the Green Academy's curriculum and is helping fund the program through its fiscal agent, CaliforniaAll. "Considering that PG&E is the largest cause of greenhouse-gas emissions in Northern California," its sponsorship "amounts to greenwashing," said Paul Fenn, CEO of Local Power, an Oakland-based nonprofit that supports communities that want to provide alternatives to PG&E. "It's disgraceful."
PG&E will apparently play a role in what Berkeley High students learn, PG&E spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian acknowledged. The utility will "provide green experts as part of the curriculum and curriculum development," Sarkissian said. "PG&E is a company that has our hands in this industry. We have the expertise and know the experts. It makes sense to be partners in the development of the curriculum."
Glenn Wolkenfeld, one of the teachers taking the lead in designing the academy, and Berkeley High Vice Principal Kristin Glenchur say the utility's influence on Berkeley High School students will be minimal. "PG&E is not dictating to us what our curriculum is; they are one of our partners," Glenchur said. "Actually, so far, all the curriculum has come from the [state] Department of Education. But we're hoping to work with PG&E as well as other organizations that are in the energy business, so that we can create curriculum that's career focused and practical and will wind up getting kids into the green economy when they finish the program."
Glenchur sees the academy as an opportunity to prepare students with a range of goals, from those who want to work in the green economy straight out of high school, to those who aim at a university degree in a related field. "Green jobs are on the horizon," she said, noting that "in the current state of our economy," the environment is "one area where there's still grant money available."
PG&E, CaliforniaAll, and the state Department of Education are sponsoring four green academies across the state, in addition to Berkeley High. They will be in high schools in Fresno, Stockton, Sacramento, and Bakersfield. Wolkenfeld thinks each will have a unique emphasis, in alignment with community values. "So my guess is that in Berkeley, we'll have a very, very strong focus on alternative energy because there's so much enthusiasm about that in our community," he said. "In other parts of the state, where energy sources are different, and local businesses have different focuses, there might be different emphases."
Wolkenfeld noted that much of the first-year funding for Berkeley's academy — $25,000 from PG&E and $15,000 from the state — will be spent on curriculum development. Next year's funding is expected to be at $72,000 per academy with $25,000 coming from PG&E and $47,000 coming from the state. "In a community like Berkeley, what I'm hoping to see are kids who have really strong familiarity with solar voltaic, with solar thermal, with wind generation, and with both the pros and the cons of using hydrogen to power vehicles, to power homes, and generate electricity," he said.
Wolkenfeld promised that the academy won't shy away from hard questions, such as defining "clean energy" and the controversies that swirl around the use of nuclear power. "What we want to do is to create kids who will grow up to be empowered citizens, who know how to sift through controversies involving nuclear energy, involving hydrogen, involving other kinds of fuel sources, so that they can make informed decisions," he said. "Our job isn't necessarily to show kids all the answers, but we want them to be really good at asking subtle and critical questions, and finding information so that they can make the best decisions about that."
But PG&E's involvement in the academy doesn't sit well with Rory Cox, California program director with Oakland-based Pacific Environment, a nonprofit that closely monitors California utilities. Pacific Environment has filed complaints with state officials over PG&E's decision to open new natural-gas-fired plants in the East Bay, thereby worsening the region's greenhouse gas emissions. "The idea that they are going to have a say in environmental education is ludicrous," he said.
And as the increasing privatization of colleges and universities raises concerns nationwide, Fenn frets that corporatization is now extending to K-12 schools. He also fears that PG&E's involvement in Berkeley will cause students to be uncritical of the utility's environmental record. "It's very worrying to see public institutions become captive of corporations because they can't fund themselves," he said. "The poverty of the public domain is the political agenda of big business."
Fenn wrote the 2002 California law that allows localities to jump into the public power market in an effort to increase renewable energy use. But Proposition 16, a statewide June ballot measure sponsored and financed by PG&E, would effectively roll back that law. The utility is concerned that it will lose market share if too many communities become public power operators. Fenn also notes that PG&E has failed to meet California's requirement that it use at least 20 percent renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, by this year. The company's current portfolio includes just 13 percent renewables. "It's the equivalent of the Chinese government funding the 'Speakers' Freedom League,'" Fenn said of the utility's sponsorship of Berkeley High's Green Academy.
But some academy supporters say that despite PG&E's controversial environmental record, public schools have few other options for raising money. Berkeley school board member John Selawsky, an active Green Party member, called the partnership with PG&E "distasteful" and conceded that it is "not my ideal corporate entity." Still, because the school district needs the money, he said: "I won't stand in the way of the academy."
Wolkenfeld argued that PG&E won't be in the spotlight. He pointed to the absence of a PG&E logo on the academy brochure. PG&E's name is there, but only alongside other businesses that provide internships, he said.
Still, PG&E has shown it's not shy when it comes to publicizing its role supporting the green academies. Ophelia Basgal, PG&E vice president in charge of community initiatives and a CaliforniaAll board member, spoke at the September 30 kickoff of the academy in the Berkeley High Library. Other speakers included State Senator Loni Hancock and spouse, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, along with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell and California Public Utilities Commission President Mike Peevey. Both O'Connell and Peevey are members of the CaliforniaAll Advisory Council. CaliforniaAll acts as a nonprofit fiscal agent for PG&E, according to Larissa Parecki, CaliforniaAll's chief operating officer. PG&E also cofounded CalfiorniaAll.
PG&E also has a long history of buddying up to California politicians. And the utility's charitable acts, Fenn said, are often aimed at elected officials. "PG&E is entrenched," he said, "in the city halls of California."
In February, Bates was criticized for his perceived closeness with the utility. After the mayor gave the opening remarks at a PG&E-sponsored event, the executive director of the consumer's group, The Utility Reform Network (TURN), interrupted the meeting to make a statement opposing Prop. 16. Bates responded by shoving the TURN official, as first reported by the Fog City Journal web site. It should be noted, however, that the City of Berkeley is on record opposing Prop. 16.
PG&E also has a record of donating to numerous Berkeley institutions. In recent years, the utility gave the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Foundation $10,000; the Berkeley Public Education Foundation $10,000; the City of Berkeley $4,500; the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab $4,500; the UC Berkeley Foundation $20,000; UC Berkeley $30,000; and the Berkeley Arts Center $1,000. PG&E also recently donated $200,000 to put solar panels on Rosa Parks School in West Berkeley.
Spokesperson Sarkissian said the corporation's charitable works are not self-serving. "We're always looking for opportunities to give back to the communities where we work and live," she said. A joint press release from PG&E, CaliforniaAll, and the state Department of Education last fall stated that the utility expected in 2009 "to provide $19 million in charitable funding."
Coming in May, PG&E also is holding a workshop on wind energy for teachers in Berkeley. A PG&E flyer says the workshop is gratis and each participant will receive materials valued at about $750. Plus, there's a free lunch.