After experiencing a few rolling blackouts, and listening to a whole lot of new and commentary , I decided to summarize these events. The original version was written in 2001, during a period marked by frenetic and (as it turned out) frequently illegal energy trading. This update was written in April 2005.
This article has a regional focus, but is relevant to the entire nation.
In 2001 the news was filled with stories of Californias power crisis. Electricity, natural gas, and gasoline were (and remain) in short supply, and customers are paying record prices for all three. The only thing that isnt scarce is the passing of blame.
As a Californian, this author received expressions of concern from around the country. One friend even sent us an emergency flashlight. And there were all those night-show jokes . . .
This energy crisis was decades in the making, and will require many years to solve. Few people to comprehend the entire situation, or even the basics of a free market economy.
There is more than enough blame to go around, and most of the participants richly deserve it. Governor Davis paid with his career. To top it off, certain activists are doing everything they can to prevent a solution.
Electricity was first harnessed more than 150 years ago. Along with steam engines, it enabled the Industrial Revolution. After a rocky start, this provided more wealth and plenty, to all social classes, than any period in history.
However, beginning with the first Luddites, its also had opponents. Western intellectuals have a long history of radical utopianism. In their hypothetical new world, industrial advancement would be governed by a new principle, in which only appropriate technology is used. Pollution is out, and access by the poorest is in. Beyond this, though cloaked in imposing language, their plan becomes rather vague.
One good way to grasp this mindset is through its fiction. Read Ernest Callenbach's novel Ecotopia, and its longer prequel Ecotopia Emerging. (Ecotopia's Crick School is based upon a private school named Pinel that I attended with Callenbachs son.)
In California, such ideas reached the highest levels. In 1973, Governor Brown proclaimed an Era of Limits. All major road, dam, and electric power projects were cancelled. Nuclear power became the ultimate bogeyman. Governor Davis was a powerful state official (Chief of Staff) back then.
Supposedly, the state's population would stabilize as its masses came into harmony with nature. In reality, many Americans moved west, and millions more immigrated, both legally and illegally. Nearly everyone decided to keep their cars, and insisted on using air conditioners on hot days.
Today California has jammed freeways, and is often short of electricity and water. During the crises of 2001, state-funded ads boasted about a dozen power plants getting built in a hurry; while at the same time, Texas was quietly building forty-five.
What caused the crisis? Most Californians blame the deregulation process. Several years ago the state laws were changed, but only a part of the system was deregulated. The details are thorny, but when examined, the plan looks absolutely bizarre; an almost guaranteed failure.
Yet that plan passed unanimously, with the support of both major political parties. At the same time, politicians from both parties, from the Governor on down, were accepting large contributions from energy companies. (In 2001 they loudly swore them off, but in 2005 . . . ?)
In a twist of logic, many locals blamed Texas, and its prosperous energy companies. As in: they own a bunch of power plants, and how dare they get rich selling it to us. Threats were made, ranging from the very personal to the idea of the state seizing control of all power plants.
This author made a series of deliveries to a huge construction project, where the new owner was doubling the size of an older, oil-fired power plant. After a multimillion dollar private investment, it's now the largest in the state.
In one construction shack I saw a big diagram of the main systems of the plant. It looked like a combination of spilled spaghetti and alphabet soup--in hieroglyphics. If the politicians had tried to handle this stuff themselves, after tossing out those greedy energy companies, California would've ended up like the old Soviet Union.
On the other hand, real greed soon turned out be involved. At that time, unpaid bills, halfway-bankrupt utilities, regulatory costs, air quality fines, and other factors combined to increase the cost of electricity from $30 per megawatt-hour to as much as $1900, in just two years. While trying to obey constantly zig-zagging state instructions, and with little regard for the law, energy companies managed to rake in spectacular profits.
'Price caps became a popular watchword. Most politicians apparently didnt understand that low prices discourage conservation. Also, without clear potential profits, no one will invest in new power plants.
Why doesnt California get busier with construction? Its not that simple here. There are activists who seriously intend to live without an electrical grid -- and for everyone else to do likewise. The ideals of Ecotopia have been adopted by some very influential people, by several minor political parties, and by almost every environmental group.
This author used to belong to the largest such group. I enjoy backpacking, and stayed at their beautiful lodge in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Lately, they've become dominated by high-powered lawyers and slick fundraisers. Critics wonder if John Muir would even recognize it. Still, they remain true to their radical ideology.
That ideology opposes all new dams, and wants to tear down existing ones. Fish come first, and forget clean water or clean hydropower.
Against greenhouse gasses? They oppose zero-emission nuclear plants. (Even though nobody in America has died from commercial nuclear power. The notorious Three Mile Island event didn't have a measurable effect on the health of Pennsylvanians.)
Forget that nasty coal or oil. Natural gas, the top choice for new power plants, is getting expensive. And, drilling is to be banned across large swaths of the country.
Are these environmentalists totally negative? They do like to tout renewable energy. But that has problems as well.
Build windmills? The Altamont Pass is carpeted with thousands of tall, elegant windmills. (I drive by them all the time.) They never featured in the blackout watch news reports. The wind doesn't blow all the time! They also have a reputation for chopping up hawks and eagles, and recently their operators have been sued over the issue.
How about solar power? You can power your house partially from solar panels, for an initial investment of about $18,000. Assuming you own a house with a great big roof. A few housing tracts are going to incorporate them into their new buildings, an excellent idea.
However, retrofitting every house would cost too much. Also, manufacturing solar panels is a lot like making computer chips. The process is ultra-toxic.
Why are environmentalists so adamant? Many believe that nature is a Goddess, and modern humans a plague upon the Earth. Read Tom Clancys Rainbow Six, which clearly portrays the mindset of such people.
Of course they have some legitimate concerns. No one likes pollution. Strangely, they remain silent about the fastest increasing polluter of all, mainland China. That nation isn'ts even subject to the much-touted Kyoto Protocols.
Many Americans snickered at California. They should understand that the same forces are at work everywhere. The real pinch has yet to be felt.
No one believes that the worlds crude oil will last forever. Most people think it should all be extracted for use, and if they dont, a few more rolling blackouts will probably change their minds.
Meanwhile, energy research continues. Nuclear fission is safer than ever, and fusion power remains a tantalizing possibility. Solar power plants based in outer space could harvest vast amounts of clean energy.
As Californians have proved, it is possible to conserve much energy. Newer appliances, light bulbs, etc., are notably more efficient. Superconducting circuitry, and other future technologies, will require very little electricity.
Ultimately there must be an ideological solution. Nothing else will get to the heart of this issue. The Divine Principle describes our times as the culmination of many historical progressions, and specifically mentions nuclear (fusion?) energy.
Greed, pollution, and extremism can all be overcome. A discerning public can elect some competent leaders. Two centuries ago American were worried about blackouts, due to a shortage of whale oil for their lamps. Someday, a united humanity will solve the power crisis once and for all.
© 2005 by Paul Carlson
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