JUICE: Know When to Fold ‘Em

By Published On: May 29, 2009

Traveling is for recuperation and inspiration. It gives us an opportunity to see beyond our set routines. In most countries, when the sun comes out, the wet clothes go on a line for drying. Yet, in some U.S. neighborhoods, and even entire cities, line drying clothes is considered an affront to aesthetics. It’s better to consume energy than, heaven forefend, have your neighbors see your tighty whiteys. California energy policymakers could use a vacation. Italy’s a good destination, where the aesthetic remains--whether or not the clotheslines are out. Following the 2000-01 energy crisis, California couldn’t get enough new power. Now, during our recession, we need to think outside the habitual box regarding consumption and production. Since the energy crisis, state agencies have rarely seen a transmission or generation project they didn’t like. The California Energy Commission crows about how many power plants it’s approved (not that all that many are built). The California Public Utilities Commission issues press releases every time it approves any project related to renewable energy. The California Independent System Operator views “reliability” over all--an hour without electricity is Dante’s hell to the grid operator On the federal side, the Bureau of Land Management and the Minerals Management Service are tripping over each other to provide publicly owned land to new energy projects. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is only happy to approve transmission facilities--especially when they connect the word “renewable” to the lines. When you get out of the California neighborhood box and travel the world, you find that an hour without power is no big deal. The economy might take a burp, but life goes on--giving everyone time to hang the laundry. I’m not advocating going without power. In this economy, though, let’s examine our priorities of spending every last dime from consumers to get every last kW delivered. Here’s some data: CAISO has about 58,000 MW available this year. It adds up from old plants, recently built fossil fuel-based facilities, hydro, peakers, nukes, and new renewables. About 10,000 MW of it is imported from out-of-state. The grid operator expects demand to peak at 45,000 MW this year--and, according to CAISO, that factors in the depressed economy. The state’s all time high was above 50,270 MW on July 24 during the heat storm of 2006. At the same time, the Energy Commission is looking at reducing its power demand forecast by 10 percent, due in large measure to meager economic expectations. Looking at those data, the state could shut down all 4,000 MW of nuclear power plants and still have plenty of energy to burn and avoid adding to the pile of lethal radioactive waste. California could sideline a bunch of once-through water cooled fossil plants that inhale marine life for breakfast. In theory, that could work, but like the realtor’s mantra, I know its “location location location.” The transmission system as we know it is built around nukes, for instance. The old once-through water-cooled power plants sit in a sting along the south coast where there’s congestion and they can be put in service to re-route energy to users. Still, step outside in the non-crisis energy travel universe. We’re overbuilding. Assuming the state’s mandate for 20-33 percent renewable energy comes to fruition, that’s even more megawatts on top of the 58,000 MW max now available. The grid operator maintains that the economy will improve and it must plan for more energy and more transmission to handle future expansion. California agencies used to perform what’s called a “needs” assessment. Before the concept of approving every new generation and transmission source in sight (or site), the state considered whether spending billions of dollars was actually necessary to meet needs. California should reconsider just what it “needs.” In addition to lowered expectations in the economy, maybe consumers are actually “getting” energy efficiency measures and conservation. If consumers are responding like policymakers hope they are, then why waste money on building ever-more infrastructure? My neighbors might not “want” to see my (cute) underwear on a clothesline, but do they “need” me to consume more power to hide them? “Smart” meters may give some consumers an indication between “wants” and “needs.” CAISO’s software set to accommodate “negawatt” bidding through demand-response contracts could hammer away at the top of the peak. But, this isn’t conservation, it’s shifting usage and aggregating consumer use patterns, and/or cutting off consumers when they agree to the interruptions. My neighbors don’t complain when I hang out the laundry. If they did, I’d drop my Pacific Gas & Electric bill on their doorsteps. It’s a complicated gamble: think the craps tables or three-dimensional chess. State agencies are betting ratepayer money on an apparently never-ending cycle of new power and transmission building. Like drying clothes and gambling--know when to fold ‘em.

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