Riding into a Sun-Set

By Published On: October 29, 2004

Ernest Callenbach wrote about a small fictional community called Ecotopia in 1975. What made Ecotopia a possibility, not a joke, was its flourishing green environment and economy. I know because I lived there. Ecotopia was along a stretch of the North Coast. There, you could find imaginative energy production?what would now be called distributed generation?off grid. One neighbor had a windmill and a teeny hydro facility to power his exotic bird sanctuary, his physics studies, and his strange theater. Others found the newly available PV panels useful. They leaned them against their fences and ran wires to the DC lamps and televisions and blenders (for margaritas) that they found in boat supply stores. While some of the spirit is left in that part of the North Coast, the economy faltered in the 1980s. The environment is only a shadow of its former verdant self. California won?t be an Ecotopia, but it could be the nation?s beacon for a less dismal, less polluted, and economically viable future. The status quo with energy agencies and the Legislature isn?t getting us there. Continued advocacy for energy agency reorganization by the governor?s California Performance Review, however, just might make a difference. Energy agencies should strive to do the best possible work to lead us toward a cleaner future and avoid getting defensive about the status quo. We are at a time when doing nothing ensures a future more like Charles Dickens? than Callenbach?s. Mulling this over reminded me of an old friend who worked with the California Energy Commission when it first took root in Sacramento. He thought the organization?s enabling legislation should have had a ?sunset? requirement after five years. That way, staff would stay fresh for the duration, but not start to think of it as a sinecure. That was 30 years ago. My friend stayed for a little more than five years. He says the staff?s initial enthusiasm and creativity dissipated within a safe harbor of regular paychecks. While I?m a fan of regular paychecks, often what one has to endure to get them stifles constructive imagination and the necessity to push bureaucratic boundaries. I?m focusing on the CEC because it is the main energy agency in the Performance Review?s sights, and because of that, it may become a far stronger influence. The commission often does a terrific job of underscoring potential policy with facts and forecasts, and doling out public-goods money to edgy projects as well as the tried and true. It applies subsidies to wind and solar power, and channels funds to more esoteric research, such as ?intelligent dust motes??artificially intelligent lighting systems. The commission does its damnedest to promote renewables. But if a solar system falls in the wilderness, will anyone notice? For its advocacy to be effective, the Legislature and executive branch have to take it seriously. Sitting on a shelf somewhere in the Capitol is last year?s Integrated Energy Policy Report. It was chock full of forecasts and facts to bolster far-reaching energy policy for California. It was roundly ignored. This year?s Integrated Energy Policy Report has just been released. If the California Performance Review puts the Energy Commission under the direct control of the governor?s office, will it be ignored again? Moving the commission?s oversight under the administration could revitalize the agency?s ability to change the state?s energy course. While the word skeptical doesn?t begin to explain how I felt about Arnold Schwarzenegger during his campaign, I?m fairly convinced that he?s surrounded himself with energy policy advisers who are progressive, work on a bipartisan basis, and may actually make a serious difference in California?s energy future. Part of this feeling stems from last week?s solar love fest (conference) in which the administration?s top people were as ubiquitous as the photovoltaics they want on every roof, and went on the record about a serious commitment to investing in solar (<i>Circuit</i>, October 22, 2004). While expressing some of the best plans, the administration isn?t totally bonkers over renewables. Just consider the veto of the renewables portfolio follow-up legislation, SB 1478. During the last year, it became clear that other institutions are in need of new blood, new leadership, or a different set of rules. These organizations are not on the California Performance Review?s desk, but they matter if we want to get beyond the sorry status quo. The roles of these and other organizations, such as the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, need to survive and prosper. The more the California Public Utilities Commission throws its support behind vertically integrated utilities, the more an effective consumer advocate is necessary. But back to the CEC?s role. The state desperately needs help in promoting and administering subsidies for cleaner energy as the rising cost (both economic and environmental) of fossil fuel sets in. The state must invest in more renewables or be lost to coal. California needs the energy intellectual equivalent of lighthouses and buoys of forecasting and climate change modeling, for instance, to navigate the treacherous ocean of predictions sans ideology. The state needs politically effective idealists who think there can be a better environmental future and one that is fair and equitable to all energy consumers. We need fearless watchdogs who keep on top of every expense, investment, and executive bonus for regulated utilities to ensure that power costs are only as high as absolutely necessary while rewarding utilities with a fair rate of return for the use of their capital and know-how. As long as there?s a market for electricity and gas, we need to encourage and enforce fair play. The academic enclave that exists in the Energy Commission, the one that projects graphs and charts potential demands, holds promise. Politicians who pay attention to its prodigious output could get a valuable earful before making decisions. But the same just-the-facts-ma?am ivory tower that supposedly prevents ideology from tweaking projections also keeps CEC staff from completing their job?that is, providing information that is used by policy makers?because the right people aren?t reading it. I see this in two ways?assumptions and effectiveness. Even though the commission building is only a few blocks from the Capitol, the assumptions that go into the agency?s analysis are often devoid of political knowledge. Often, staff assume inertia and/or life without political changes. Without becoming politically savvy, they can?t seem to make themselves indispensable to decision makers. Would a CEC reborn into the executive branch be more useful? It would certainly be less abstract, but it could then suffer by becoming a tool to carry out a governor?s agenda. If I?m wrong about the current governor?s commitment to renewables and if future governors decide that fossil is the only way, then following the Performance Review?s suggestions could turn out to be a rotten idea. But if the current administration is faithful to its word, in the short term, the commission?s forecasting and planning functions would be effectual and the agency would probably bring new energy along with new purpose. The short term seems to be what counts. Renewable technology is available now at a decent price. This year and next are vital to the future. The state could be paralyzed by an absence of energy policy and a lack of commitment to spending money on renewables. If that investment isn?t made now, it will drive us inexorably to a wheezing, polluted future based on fuels that won?t be around for long. With affordable natural gas as a power plant fuel evanescent, a lack of investment in renewables now means that the state will rely on coal-fired electricity. That path avoids spending ratepayer or taxpayer money now, the status quo feared by all politicians. And it makes any endeavor to create a smidgen of Ecotopia in California a cruel joke. Or, with a tip of the hat and a flourishing of the wallet to the way it should be, 2004-05 will be the years politicians suck it up and say they have to spend money now on the future of cleaner energy. By having an energy agency under its own, short-term control, perhaps the administration can have the political clout to make that difference. It could allow the Energy Commission to ride bravely off into the sunset, only to be reborn in a solar flash as a fiery new tool for energy policy.

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