Illustration by Amy Curkendall

Illustration by Amy Curkendall

November 2013

Publisher's View: Energy

Steven J. Moss

While devices have gotten more efficient, most Californians use electricity in pretty much the same way their parents did, turning power-needy items on and off with a switch, without much thought. Electricity is a means, not an end. 

But on the other side of the meter a fundamental transformation is occurring, one that’s as profound as society’s pivot towards organic food and a sharing economy, or Dogpatch’s resurrection from San Francisco’s industrial heart to its technology brain. Where once fossil fuel power plants were virtually the only option for producing electricity, today solar, wind, and other renewable sources provide roughly one-fifth of the power conveyed by Pacific Gas and Electric Company and the state’s other two large utilities. Within well less than ten years renewables’ share will jump to one-third.

This change has occurred not because of market forces — monopoly utilities are largely exempt from free enterprise — but as a result of public policies. Starting in 2002 California implemented a series of laws that pushed renewables into the state’s electricity supply system. The success of these mandates, just ten years later, is a testament to the powerful ability of politics to make things better, a lesson that shouldn’t be ignored. In an era of angry federal government gridlock, California’s energy achievements offers a renewable ray of sunshine that illuminates our elected officials’ and supporting bureaucracies’ ability to get things done.

The emergence of renewables and other clean technologies has done more than reduce the grid’s environmental impacts. It has fundamentally disrupted utilities’ business models. We no longer have to be dependent on a massive “spoke and wheels” electric system, in which we pay large sums of money to support vast fossil fuel or nuclear power plants that pump electricity through a sprawling transmission and distribution system. Instead, a series of energy-generating bundles — a mix of solar and wind, supporting by a diverse set of storage devices that can range from ice, newfangled water wheels, and batteries — are emerging that have the ability to reliably energize clusters of homes and businesses. An important element of the new electricity era mimics the sharing economy emerging for vehicles, lodging, and even pet sitting, in which those who are willing to avoid using electricity for a few hours are occasionally paid to do so as a way to keep overall demand in check.

Opportunities are emerging to comfortably modify the way we live our lives to accommodate a more su tainable future. For instance, solar-enabled parking lots could be dedicated to electric vehicles, which breath in and out of a community-based grid depending on supply and demand, turning ecologically problematic garages into environment-friendly living batteries. Technologies low - power strips and timers — and high - communicating sensors — can manage the timing of electricity use in a way that matches emerging time-variant tariffs, which reflect the underlying costs, environmental and otherwise, of providing power. We’re moving past the place where living ecologically is the purview of the very rich or the very poor, to mainstreaming a green energy grid.

The needed technologies are fast becoming available for even greater reductions in California’s dependence on fossil-based generation, plausibly getting to a fossil fuel-free era by the end of this century. But we won’t reach that point unless we continue to choose the right pathways. State regulators and utility managers aren’t so different from ordinary consumers; they’re used to switching a power plant on or off when it’s needed, favoring relatively inexpensive — for now — natural gas facilities. Likewise, 100 years of investment in a government-protected, profitable approach to doing business, whether it’s taxicabs or power purveying, doesn’t change easily. 

Reducing the state’s dependence on combustion-based electricity by one-third in two decades will be an achievement worth celebrating. Cutting it another third could take even less time, if we make the right choices, something we’ve proven that we’re quite capable of doing.

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