Shock therapy

If nothing else, California’s energy crisis has shocked us into a new awareness about power. For the first time, we know that our energy system is vulnerable and unreliable. The crisis is scary, but it’s also an opportunity to move toward a new system that is reliable.

Politicians want us to believe that the best bet is to streamline the permitting process in order to build more natural-gas-fired power plants, and fast. But that won’t solve the long-term problem of a serious lack of transmission lines to deliver new power. And, with natural-gas prices going through the roof and shortages predicted for years to come, it won’t do much in the long run to reduce electricity costs. Besides, gas-fired plants, although cleaner than coal plants, do pollute and do generate huge amounts of greenhouse gases. They also use a lot of water for cooling. Any increase in the number of such plants will have an equivalent impact on the natural environment.

To arrive at a long-term energy solution, California should follow the lead of municipal entities like the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and increase use of such alternative sources as wind, geothermal, cogeneration and solar power. We realize that this is the approach usually trotted out in such situations, but guess what: These sources, which didn’t even exist 25 years ago, now produce roughly a third of the state’s power—reliably and cleanly.

But the biggest step state officials can take is to move away from the centralized-power model, whereby electricity is generated by large, corporate-owned power plants and then sent to users hundreds of miles away, and toward a decentralized system of small, localized sources. The centralized system is never going to be as reliable as California’s “new economy” needs it to be, and besides, it’s inevitably hard on the environment. Now is the time to begin replacing it with environmentally friendly, reliable “distributed-generation” sources.

These take several forms and can go almost anywhere—solar photovoltaic panels atop a new warehouse, a fuel cell generator on a university campus, a small cogeneration plant at a factory. These are not pie-in-the-sky technologies; they are being successfully used in Sacramento and all over the country, and their costs are rapidly coming down. This is especially true of solar PV tiles. If every commercial and industrial roof in the state were covered with these tiles, it would generate 16,000 megawatts of power, fully one-third of the state’s current usage. And it would be most useful in the summer, when the state’s power needs are greatest.

There is no longer any reason to remain so reliant on large, corporate-owned power plants. Energy freedom and self-reliance are right at hand. Combined with a renewed emphasis on conservation—which Californians again seem willing to practice—these new, localized technologies can provide more than enough of the clean and reliable power we need.