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The Press Enterprise


Expose Energy Facade

May 31, 2008

By Max Schulz

California’s green economy is a mirage that produces high costs, power shortages, dependence on other states

In January 2007, Gov. Schwarzenegger stood before the California Legislature in Sacramento and delivered his fourth State of the State address since his improbable 2003 election. It was a rhetorical tour de force that would win him widespread acclaim.

“California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta,” said Schwarzenegger. “Not only can we lead California into the future; we can show the nation and the world how to get there.”

Misplaced Pride

Schwarzenegger especially celebrated California for its leadership on energy and the environment. Just three months earlier, he had signed the Global Warming Solutions Act, committing California to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels -- roughly 25 percent below today’s -- by 2020, and all but eliminating them by 2050.

Schwarzenegger’s reputation as an environmental trailblazer is in keeping with California’s recent history and self-perception. California’s political leaders, business titans, academics and environmental activists proudly point to the fact that the state has infused its public policy over the last four decades with an environmental consciousness unmatched in the United States, while also maintaining a dynamic economy, arguably the eighth-largest on the planet, with a gross state product of more than $1.6 trillion.

The widely shared assumption is that forward-looking Athenian wisdom has nourished awesome Spartan power.

In truth, however, the Golden State’s energy leadership is a mirage. California’s environmental policies have made it heavily dependent on other states for power, generated some of the highest, business-crippling energy costs in the country, and left it vulnerable to periodic electricity shortages. Its economic growth has occurred not because of, but despite, those policies, which would be disastrous if extended to the rest of the country.

To understand better how California’s environmental policies have played out, however, consider what two of them -- opposition to nuclear energy and promotion of solar power -- have done to Clay Station, Calif., 25 miles outside Sacramento, where two gigantic cooling towers rise up over rolling fields and farmland.

This facility was once the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station, capable of generating more than 900 megawatts of electricity, enough to power upward of 900,000 homes. Rancho Seco opened in 1975, when anti-nuclear fervor in California was just beginning to gain momentum, and at one point, it generated more electricity than any other nuclear plant in the world.

Over the years, though, management missteps led to several shutdowns, including one that lasted 27 months. Anti-nuclear advocates seized on the fact that the reactor’s design was similar to Three Mile Island’s in Pennsylvania, which had suffered a partial meltdown in 1979, and demanded that it be closed.

Dirty Secrets

In a 1989 referendum on whether to decommission Rancho Seco, 53 percent of Sacramento voters agreed. Just 14 years after powering up, and nearly two decades before its operating license was to expire, the nuclear reactor shut down.

Today, Rancho Seco possesses one of the largest photovoltaic arrays in the world. Yet it provides less than 4 MW of electricity, or less than half of 1 percent of what the closed nuclear plant optimally offered. Total solar capacity for the Sacramento region is less than 50 MW, or about 6 percent of the nuclear plant’s output.

A dirty secret about California’s energy economy is that it imports lots of energy from neighboring states to make up for the shortfall caused by having too few power plants. Up to 20 percent of the state’s power comes from coal-burning plants in Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Montana, and another significant portion comes from large-scale hydropower in Oregon, Washington state and the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas.

Another secret: California’s proud claim to have kept per-capita energy consumption flat while growing its economy is less impressive than it seems. The state has some of the highest energy prices in the country -- nearly twice the national average, a 2002 Milken Institute study found -- largely because of regulations and government mandates to use expensive renewable sources of power.

As a result, heavy manufacturing and other energy-intensive industries have been fleeing the Golden State in droves.

California isn’t content to keep its energy policy within state limits, however. Recently, it passed a law barring state utilities from entering into long-term contracts to buy electricity from out-of-state producers if coal is used in generating it.

“California is using (its) regulations to direct the economic development of the West. And it is arrogant, and it is appalling,” said a top official at the U.S. Department of Energy.

California is certainly within its rights to set policies for itself and to live with the consequences. But someone needs to build power plants and oil refineries. Someone needs to manufacture the cars, trucks, airplanes and other pieces of heavy equipment that enrich Americans’ lives, till our fields and grow our economy.

Someone needs to produce the plastics and chemicals that undergird our prosperity. Those things require energy, and lots of it -- growing amounts of it. All the wisdom of Athens and all the power of Sparta won’t change that fact.

Original Source:



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