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Lighting Up Your Life

Does anybody around here remember California Governor Gray Davis? You know, the guy who so hopefully set up extra card tables at the Capitol to battle energy monster Enron during the 2000-2001 Energy Crisis? Didn't think so. Davis’s gubernatorial neck did not survive the political guillotine of public outrage that fueled his subsequent recall. Why? The lights went out. Environmental issues like air pollution, fish kills, and protests over tree cutting were all kicked to the curb. And just like back then, using right-of-way tree removal as just one simple example, those lauding their own risk-free efforts to block utility crews will be first in line to call for Newsom's head when a tree in an overhead right-of-way predictably succumbs to gravity and falls into one of those lines and ignites a wildfire. A rare political truth in politics is that no leader escapes the ax when electricity delivery fails. Nobody. 

Those who still swoon over reruns of Jane Fonda's film, The China Syndrome (significant contributor to nuclear power's death knell in California), should wake up and smell the cappuccino they just poured from that shiny-new plug-in appliance – and in the process consider a few basic energy facts: 

1) No electricity generation is without some risk - get over it.

2) The notion that intermittent renewable sources of electricity are currently waiting around for us to reap their benefits is a pipe dream: Hydro is waaay tapped out, and the trend today is tearing down existing dams, not building new ones; wind power, as its name implies, uses wind as its energy source, available only a fraction of the time; California and the feds are paying wealthy Californians to install rooftop solar, which requires a functional distribution and transmission grid to “sell back” excess electricity for utility-bill offsets; and a sure route to blackouts is paved with electric car chargers, where fiscally enriched owners are already being warned against charging during high-peak electricity demand periods.

3) Nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases like fossil-fueled plants, which we know are big-time contributors to the known and documented existential threat of global warming. Nuclear power plants are baseload plants, which means they can operate full tilt, all the time. Diablo Canyon supplies California with a hair under 10% of the electricity all Californians consume, and according to the California Energy Commission’s 2021 stats, the state’s natural gas power plants contributed an additional 50.2%. Renewable resources can’t replace that generation overnight (or fast enough to avoid tanking political careers before future elections). The political stakes could hardly be higher. 

Finally when it comes to policies that could impose limits on our overactive collective sense of entitlement, idealistic platitudes not based on science immediately spark outrage. What? No electricity? How am I supposed to heat/cool my house, use my computer, cook my food, in other words, live? It’s been generations since 24/7 always-available electricity became the norm. We’ve forgotten what life was like without it. (I recommend the first volume of the massive Lyndon Johnson biography regarding rural electrification for a refresher.) We forget – or never knew – that electricity must be generated and transmitted to customers. And even if you generate it yourself on your roof you need a transmission grid so your utility can buy some of it back from you. The topper is our foolish optimism that someone, somewhere (default: science) will quickly figure out these problems and come up with an instant solution. The latest is batteries. In this scenario storage batteries will save us all. You know, batteries, the things you can’t throw away in the regular trash because they contain sodium chloride, chloric acid, nitric acid, potassium nitrate, hydrochloric acid, potassium nitrate, sulfuric acid, sodium hydroxide, magnesium hydroxide, and sodium acetate? Formulas vary according to size but none are good environmental news.

When I taught English in Turkey back in the day I used to stand on the balcony and watch as electric light crawled around the bay toward me as it delivered its two hours of electricity in the morning and two hours in the evening. It was just the way it was; there was simply not enough electricity for everyone to have it all the time. Run by the Turkish government, this electricity rationing necessity was a purely technical issue. 

Here in California there are also technical issues surrounding the state’s transition to more carbon-neutral electricity. But, unlike in Turkey, Newsom would face an inevitable, painful political demise if the lights go out on his watch. He has to punt on electricity in the short term so blackouts don’t kill his presidential aspirations, especially at the hands of pugnacious Florida Governor DeSantis, who doesn’t share California’s problem with his state’s five nuclear plants. Such a match-up could re-pave the road once travelled by the hapless Gray Davis, whose energy failure cleared the way for his Republican successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

3 Comments

  1. John Sakowicz September 12, 2022

    Nice writing. Cogent arguments.

  2. Jonah raskin September 12, 2022

    Very useful information and also worrisome
    Thanks for sharing

  3. izzy September 12, 2022

    We’re in a time of basic energy facts and inconvenient truths. That goes for water too. Unfortunately, the embroiled masses seem unable to sort it out intelligently. Another catchy slogan is called for, and will probably make little difference.
    Democrat or Republican, reality is catching up with that American Dream, and a great reckoning is upon us. It appears Europe may lead the way down first.

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