(By Steven J. Moss) We pretend otherwise, but Californiaâ€™s energy sector is planned as centrally as any old line communist state. Every aspect of our complicated electricity system has to be approved by a state bureaucrat, usually at the request of a monopoly utility that has its hands permanently in our pockets. And virtually every fuel source, from solar to nuclear, is heavily subsidized. The results are decidedly mixed.
We pretend otherwise, but California’s energy sector is planned as centrally as any old line communist state. Every aspect of our complicated electricity system has to be approved by a state bureaucrat, usually at the request of a monopoly utility that has its hands permanently in our pockets. And virtually every fuel source, from solar to nuclear, is heavily subsidized.
The results are decidedly mixed. When we flick a switch, the lights go on, which is way better performance than lot’s of other countries. But the system’s expensive and overly polluting. Residential rates will soon likely pop above energy crises levels; high industrial and commercial rates are in part what’s kept the state’s economy in the doldrums. And decades-old power plants continue to pollute the air and water because no one’s in charge of closing them.
The 20th century solution to state-run enterprises was privatization. We tried that with the electricity sector as the century turned, with bad results. So here’s a novel idea to cure what ails us: give fewer government bureaucrats more authority; and have more active and informed public conversations about how best to achieve conflicting goals.
The electric industry is currently regulated by a cacophony of state agencies, each in charge of a different part of the elephant. Governor Schwarzengger has proposed consolidating these into a single uber-agency. That’s a good idea, but needs to be a part of overall regulatory reform.
Utility spending -- billions of dollars a year on everything from poles to meters -- needs to be examined more carefully and comprehensively, by top-notch staff, to ensure it’s warranted. Right now ratepayers are essentially “taxed” billions of dollars to pay for a variety of electric services, some of which power our refrigerators and hot tubs, but others that pay for research into advanced technologies, energy “education” programs, and other initiatives that are only remotely related to producing another kilowatt of electricity. Virtually none of these expenditures are regularly examined by an elected official. As a result, we’re dependent on civil service staff to ensure that energy spending is “just and reasonable.” These individuals need to be the smartest people in the room when the meet with utility staff and technology advocates, which means they also need to earn something more than a lobbyist’s annual entertainment allowance.
Likewise, the trade-offs between ensuring the lights stay on and other societal goals must be made more explicit. To do so will require us to determine what our priorities are in the face of changing global environmental and economic conditions. For example, do we want low electric rates, cleaner air, or the minimum number of outages possible? All three of these goals are not simultaneously obtainable, yet under current governance structures we act as if they are. Worse yet, autonomous agencies which rarely communicate with one another are responsible for achieving different goals. Horses pulling in different direction rarely get very far.
We currently spend more than $200 million a year keeping old polluting power plants in the Bay Area going. We also subsidize low income families’ electricity use. Since low income households are disproportionately located close-by power plants, we’re essentially paying people to suck on the exhaust pipes we’re also paying to keep chugging along. We can do better than this.
Steven Moss is the publisher of the Neighborhood Environmental Newswire. He serves as Executive Director of San Francisco Community Power, www.sfpower.org.
Source: An ENN Guest Commentary