Thirty years of California's opposition to energy

By Alan Caruba
web posted April 9, 2001

"Thirty years of environmentalism had progressively crippled California's power supply system," says Jack Wakeland, the author of "California's Green Brownout", an article in the March issue of The Intellectual Activist.

That's it in a proverbial nutshell. Back in the 1970's, along with the rest of the nation, California put on its green-colored glasses and pretended you don't have to build the plants necessary to generate electricity or the transmission lines to get it to people's homes and places of business.

I am cursed with an utterly pragmatic view of life. I have virtually no place in my thinking for the kind of notions that drive environmentalists to do everything in their power to deny the obvious. Unlike environmentalists who are convinced that the world is coming to an end, I think any planet that has been around for over five billion years probably will be around for another five billion or more.

It is finally obvious to Californians--and hopefully to the rest of America--that a modern, technologically advanced nation must simply have power. It must have it all the time. Pay no attention whatever to the notion of "sustainable development." It is intended to make you think we're running out of coal. There's enough coal, just in the US, to fuel all our electric needs for centuries! The same is pretty much the case for other energy fuels.

Thanks to Mr. Wakeland's article, here's a brief look at what Californians did to insure they would one day be reading by candlelight. It goes back to the 1970 (& 1990) Clean Air Act that blamed coal burning utilities for "acid rain." After the Act passed, power plants around the nation were required to retrofit with flue gas desulfurization. The air got "cleaner", but the retrofitting blocked 10 per cent to 20 per cent of a plant's output of energy. Your energy bill went up.

Californians took up the clean air banner to insure that coal, the primary source of power for 57 per cent of the nation, was reduced to barely 1 per cent of the state's generating capacity. How about an energy-producer that has zero emissions? Nuclear energy is the cleanest form of energy generation, but Californians didn't want it either.

What California's Greens didn't want was any horrid plant built in their state. It took 17 years -- yes, years -- of hearings, design modifications, and endless protests to build the Diablo Canyon plant and the bill came to $6 billion dollars. It originally was expected to cost about $500 million.

Having made it impossible to build new nuclear plants, in 1989 California Greens targeted existing plants. What a great triumph it was when they got the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to shut down their 900 megawatt (MW) Rancho Seco nuclear plant. In 1990, Southern California Edison asked the California Public Utilities Commission for permission to extend the life of the San Onofre Unit 1. The PUC refused. They ordered it to be immediately shut down.

Greens went after hydroelectric dams as well. These plants produce 22 per cent of the electricity used in California, about a third of which is imported from the Northwest from producers like Canada's British Columbia Hydro and the US government's Bonneville Power Authority.

The Northwest Power Act, passed in 1980, required reservoir levels be maintained to supply optimum springtime flows for salmon spawning. This limit wiped out more than 1,000 megawatts of BPA's capacity. The Greens then used the Endangered Species Act to idle even more hydroelectric capacity, eliminating another 400 MW of BPA generating capacity.

Greens nationwide also attacked the transmission and distribution of electricity. Claiming PCBs, used to cool transformers, were a danger, in 1977 the Environmental Protection Agency banned its production. Utilities switched to mineral oil, a substance that had been used at the turn of the century.

When utilities tried to build transmission lines, California Greens fought every effort. One route through Pleasanton, was rejected even though Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) intended to bury the lines. The new lines would provide a link into the Tri-Valley area, already at its limits and in need of more energy.

In California, it takes an average 16 months to respond to environmental permit applications before a new generator can be built. In other states, it takes about ten months. Typically, planners figure it will take three years between beginning a new project and final permitting. In San Francisco, it took ten years to get permits approved for a 240 MW gas-fired plant in Crockett, a few miles northeast of the city on the Bay.

Across the Bay, PG&E wanted to build an addition at Hunters Point. They submitted 20,000 pages of documentation to the city council. Two years later, in 1998, the city moved to shut down Hunters Point, a plant that had been providing electricity for 69 years. In 1999, a similar request for an addition to the Potrero Hill plant in San Francisco was proposed to take up the slack due to the loss of Hunters Point. Residents opposed it. (Right now, the building of new power plants in New York City is being opposed by environmentalists.)

When two independent power producers proposed five temporary plants for the Bay area, the State Utility Reform Network, a coalition of anti-energy groups, threatened legal action to stall the plants. The plans were cancelled.

Of the fifty states, California ranks dead last in the per capita provision of electrical energy. Today, California's power stations have a total capacity of 52,144 megawatts. That's fully 2 per cent less than the peak demand. Lacking the desire to build the plants necessary to meet their needs, California has purchased nearly 20 per cent of its electricity from out of state suppliers for the past decade.

Under deregulation, California's Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric were forced to sell their generating capacity. This occurred just when the state's defense industries were coming out of a recession and the digital boom fueling new jobs was growing so fast it needed more energy to keep pace.

Having masterminded this calamity, it need be said that millions of Californians are utterly dependent on dams in British Columbia and giant coal burning plants in Nevada, and a nuclear reactor in Arizona for their ice cubes, air conditioning, CD players and everything else that requires electricity.

And this fate awaits the rest of the nation if it continues to yield to the insanity of environmentalism. People have got to understand electricity is not delivered by magic. It has to be fueled by coal, natural gas, hydroelectric power, or nuclear power. It requires mining. It requires drilling. It requires large dams and reservoirs. It requires fision But mostly it requires common sense.

It will be decades before California get dig itself out of the deep, dark pit it has dug for itself. James Flanigan, a senior economics editor for the Los Angeles Times, has noted that "The bonded indebtedness of the state will grow by at least 80 per cent to deal with a problem that did not exist even a year ago and would not exist now, were it not for the early political decision against rate increases, energy experts and economists says."

So, now California has both an energy and a financial crisis. No one can even begin to calculate how many businesses and individuals will make the decision to simply leave the state to avoid these increased costs. Environmentalism's impact on California will prove very costly. This is a lesson that should not be lost on the rest of America.

Alan Caruba is a frequent contributor. His column, "Warning Signs", is posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba, 2001

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