California officials were feeling virtuous (and, presumably, some of the rest of the country was green with envy) earlier this month when the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out new carbon emission caps for power plants.
The EPA’s goal is to reduce emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 by imposing regulations that will increase energy costs by an estimated $8.5 billion a year. The feds insisted these goals are attainable by pointing to the progress California has made in cutting carbon emissions.
As usual, the Golden State was ahead of the curve in 2006 when it passed its global warming law to cut carbon emissions 30 percent by 2020. “We are well on our way to meeting the standards,” crowed Derek Walker of the Environmental Defense Fund. “California doesn’t have to start from scratch.”
Coming up with the scratch to pay for all of this clean air is another matter, as residents of the state are slowly realizing. California already has some of the highest rates for electricity in the U.S., but that’s nothing compared to what the future holds as we push as hard as we can to get as green as we can.
Residential electricity rates in California increased 30 percent between 2006 and 2012 after adjusting for inflation, according to the U.S. Energy Department. Among other things, that means we pay 65 percent more than the national average for a kilowatt of electricity.
But hold on, there’s more coming. Energy and Environmental Economics, a San Francisco consulting firm, projects that the cost of electricity will increase 47 percent over the next 16 years, primarily because of California’s shift to more expensive renewable energy and heavy investments in transmission lines.
“Everywhere you turn, there are proposals and regulations to make prices go higher,” Daniel Kish, senior vice president of the Institute for Energy Research, told the Los Angeles Times. “The trend line is up, up, up. We are going into uncharted territory.”
California has the nation’s most aggressive mandate for renewable power. Major utilities must obtain 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, and that doesn’t include hydropower from Sierra Nevada dams.
Production of wind and solar energy are expensive enough as is, but since they depend on the weather, they require backup generation, a hidden cost that makes renewable power even less attractive to rate payers.
Then there’s the collateral damage from massive wind farms that have killed at lease 85 eagles since 1997 (58 in California and Wyoming alone) in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Bald and Golden Eagles Protection Act.
How is the Obama Administration, a big booster of wind energy, responding? It wants to issue permits that allow wind energy companies to kill or injure eagles for as long as 30 years without legal consequences.
That move was challenged in federal court last week, when the American Bird Conservancy filed suit. In the words of ABC’s Michael Hutchins: “It’s just a real big price to pay. I don’t think we can see these resources as collateral damage to try win the fight on climate change.”
California has all but phased out coal-generated electricity. The state lost the output of San Onofre’s two nuclear reactors and, at a time when the U.S. is drowning in natural gas, will shut down 19 gas-fired power plants along the coast by 2020 because of new state-imposed ocean water rules.
“Our rates are increasing because of all these changes that are occurring and will continue to occur as far out as we can see,” said Phil Leiber, chief financial officer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “Renewable power has merits, but unfortunately it is more costly and is one of the drivers of our rates.”
Finally, there’s the state cap-and-trade system, which allows polluters to purchase allowances to offset carbon omissions. California motorists get to play this game next year, when cap-and-trade will be expanded to include diesel fuel and gasoline. The California Air Resources Board, which has done little to alert the public to what’s coming, estimates gasoline prices will increase between 4 and 19 percent.
All of this could trigger a counter-revolution. In the words of Alex Leupp of the Northern California Power Agency:
“If power gets too expensive, there will be a revolt. If the state pushes too fast on renewables before the technology is viable, it could set back the environmental goals we all believe in at the end of the day.”
The state could help ease the burden on the people who actually have to pay for this progress by letting up on the throttle (powered by renewable electricity, of course) by encouraging wider use of natural gas – half as polluting as oil – while we continue to refine the technology that will make solar and wind power truly competitive with fossil fuels.
The U.S. also needs to convince the developing world that being a first-world economic power isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. There’s no point in bankrupting the state’s residents to get green if we’re going to have to breathe polluted air from China.
George Boardman is a member of The Union’s editorial board and lives in Lake of the Pines. His columns appear on Mondays in The Union.
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