Publisher’s View: Climate

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The federal government has finally joined the State of California in a spirited effort to vastly reduce anthropogenic discharges that are fostering a hotter, drier, planet. The state and fed plan to forestall the worst effects of human-induced climate change by squeezing fossil fuels out of our electricity system within the next 15 years, deploying the resulting clean electricity to rapidly displace gasoline and diesel use in cars and trucks. Technology will save us, with wind, sun, and storage replacing the burning of long dead and decayed life as our primary energy source.

We’ve been at similar junctures. At the turn of the 19th Century cities were choked with horse emissions – dung, urine, and carcasses – that propagated disease-laden flies, terraforming streets into smelly piles of dung. That problem was solved by fossil-fueled internal combustion engines muscling aside horse power.  One hundred years later, those combustion engines are themselves causing problems at a scale vastly more significant than mountains of manure.

The hope is that the carbon-free transition will be so seamless that Americans won’t even know it happened. Jeeps will be traded in for Hyundais; there’ll be energetic demand for electrified Ford F-Series; coal miners will become wind and sun miners. The Earth will look freshly shiny when viewed from 21st Century settlements on the Moon or Mars, the atmosphere relieved of its filthy pollution burden.  

Inshallah, this is our future. Evidence from California, however, suggests that the fossil fuel makeover won’t be cheap, easy, or possibly even effective at turning down Earth’s thermostat. One challenge is that the climate is already changing, stressing water and electricity infrastructure, famously triggering wildfires, heat waves and droughts, pushing weather migrants away from subsistence farming in Central America and elsewhere. The plane isn’t exactly going down, but it’s hard to focus on long range navigation amidst all the turbulence. 

Another problem is continued reliance on profit-seeking utilities, such as Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and Southern California Edison, as primary implementers of our carbon-free future. These monopolies are easily distracted, especially when tasked with responsibilities outside their comfort zones, like fielding electric vehicle charging facilities and encouraging the development of “microgrids.” Their equipment has repeatedly triggered massive wildfires; PG&E adds insult to injury by charging twice as much as the national average for its services. 

The regulatory wrapper in which private power companies are governed – in California principally the Public Utilities Commission – is mired in a statutory role that’s mostly reactionary – responding to utility proposals as to how to get where policymakers want to go and reliant on tedious administrative processes that suck the color directly out of the eyeballs of all participants. Quasi-judicial processes, involving many lawyers, are required to hash out the simplest of endeavors, such as how best to structure modest demonstration projects. It takes several dozen utility and regulatory staff just to change the proverbial light bulb from fluorescent to LED.

This clumsy half capitalistic, half Soviet-style industrial planning apparatus has lurched towards climate goals, radically reducing reliance on coal, natural gas, even nuclear power, breaking lots of dishes along the way. California’s electricity grid is seventh cleanest in the nation, but its prices are amongst the highest, twice that of Tennessee’s, with additional billions of taxpayer dollars spent annually on wildfire response, vehicle electrification efforts, and the like. 

Other unpleasant side effects have emerged. Distrust of the system, caused in part by forced outages used to manage wildfire risks, has squeezed out a kind of shadow grid – a grey market in energy reliability – that’s largely outside climate aspirations, further concentrating energy inequality. While more than half of California’s grid is powered by non-fossil-fueled resources – solar, wind, and hydro – there are tens of thousands of diesel and natural gas backup engines (BUGs) in the state, at the ready in case of a blackout, adding up to many gigawatts of power capacity and associated carbon emissions. Similar to families fleeing public schools for independent education, those who can are setting up their own standby grids, often with fossil fuel BUGs. What’s more, increased mining of lithium, cobalt, and nickel needed for electric batteries, mostly used by wealthier individuals, is fouling lands and sucking up groundwater, mostly located near poor people.

In 1919, as horses began to give way to horsepower, the Village Trustees of Woodstock issued traffic regulations, engaging a cop to enforce them, that prohibited driving a motor faster than ten miles an hour or parking a motor vehicle in spots where horses could otherwise be hitched. Our present energy political economy is at a similar place, metaphorically protecting the soon to be obsolete status quo and relying on poorly equipped regulatory traffic cops to police the speed of change. Technology alone will not save us.