JUICE: Top Down, Bottom Up, a Regulator/Consumer Dilemma

By Published On: November 6, 2009

Editors’ note: This second opinion piece in a series addresses the disparity between what policy makers try to accomplish and real-world implementation. The sweetest bet I ever made was with my step-dad. It pitted my loathing of typing against the love of sports cars. I hated typing class in high school. It was the female ghetto. I knew because my single mom (before the step-dad) was a secretary. I wanted to be a journalist--same underlying skill but different career track. My dad made me a bet. If I simply passed typing with a “C” he’d get me a sports car. Three months later my exercised fingers gripped the stick shift of a bright yellow MGB that dad restored from the junk yard. Top down, ditching school, heading toward Huntington Beach. I’m a Californian through and through. Born near the Los Angeles freeway system, spent all my life in the state, and I have the same love affair that most Californians do with vehicles. Even as a teenager, I also had a social responsibility streak. I recycled snuck-in beer cans, became vegetarian due to land use impacts, and started a food co-op. All grown up, as a responsible consumer who knows more than average about energy, I want my vehicle to be low-carbon. In Oakland where I live, there’s the option of AC Transit--I like buses, but they require a time investment. And, late night, pepper spray. My California DNA kicked in. I wanted a real car. As a responsible consumer, I considered the Pious Prius. That would make the hardworking folks at the California Energy Commission happy to put in their statistics, as well as the agency’s increased pressure on other regulators and legislators through the Integrated Energy Policy Report to push the population towards alternative transportation and alternative fuels. It would make regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission and investor-owned utilities happy to count me as a consumer to buy a plug-in vehicle to support changing the traditional fossil fueling architecture. It would also mean more income for utilities not only from the sale of electricity to the Tesla (desired: even if available, out of price range), but for rates of return on building up the distribution system to support fleets of plug-in cars. Sorry y’all. I decided to have some affordable fun before I die. My latest sports car has the carbon footprint of a Sasquatch. My consumer decision reflects the difficulties regulators have with getting consumers to part with their scarce economic resources to implement their plans for California’s future--reduced greenhouse gas emissions, moving to less-fossil fuels for transportation as well as power plants. Regulators and legislators are putting out that goal stick. They are not covering the territory between now and then. The state’s move towards alternative vehicle fueling systems is a start. I suggest that to cover the mid territory between now and then the state focus on pooling funds to create customer options and fueling infrastructure, instead of paying out of our consumers’ direct pockets. I have only so much money. I have only so much time. My research tells me that being on the bleeding edge of vehicle technology will not save much, if any, energy. It will not change demand forecasts so alternative fuels may cover the highway landscape. Even if I did have $109,000 for a Tesla, I’d be buying into the continued use of coal and nuclear plants as baseload facilities in order to plug in my car for charging during non-peak hours. State funds should be pooled to create and narrow standards, not a zig zag of different fuels with different fueling stations and different agendas. That is, if it’s an ethanol fuel, stick to it--Shell stations of corn-fuel dotting the highways. If it’s a plug-in vehicle, create the plugs and the plug-ins. Doubling the infrastructure is a doubling of expense, not fun. Like utilities say, give us certainty where we invest our money and where financial institutions allow us to borrow that money to make it happen. If state funds through ratepayers anoint utilities to be the entities to carry out plans for alternative vehicles, align their investments to new standards and common infrastructure. If the state’s learned anything from allowing $5 billion to be spent on a mish-mash of different technologies and communication structures for smart meters in investor-owned utilities’ territories, it’s that standardization and open architectures have value. In the last six months the state’s electric utilities have leaned on investors for the future of electric cars. Utilities claim that heavy new investments in distribution systems are required to support electric cars. The industry claims that standardization of the plug-in fueling system is on its way. Utilities may make over 11 percent return on investments to shore up the distribution system to accept plug-in cars. Utilities’ (and merchant) power plants would be able to sell more power to the plug-ins. As I noted, it would keep nuclear plants, and out-of-state coal power, running all night to fuel the plug-ins. As a conscious consumer, I want to do the right thing--the very thing that regulators and legislators want the public to do--use alternative fuels, or no fossil fuels at all. It is a conflict of cost and opportunity. I don’t want to use polluting electric energy imported into my garage--even though it appears clean, it is not. A “build it and they will come” attitude might work for a future generation. There needs to be a bridge between that future and our consumers’ reality My convertible’s top is down but the responsibility that top-down policy makers put on the public for change is from the bottom up. Even if there were more “cash for Sasquatch” cars, even environmentally conscious, well-researched, consumers have an overwhelming number of tradeoffs to make.

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