The City of Thousand Oaks was a brand-new suburb of Los Angeles in 1965, with fresh, modern tract homes springing up everywhere. As a 9-year-old transplant from stogy New York, I coveted my neighbor’s house, the newest and the most modern on the block. It displayed an emblem near the front door proclaiming that the visitor stood on the threshold of a “Gold Medallion, All-Electric Home.” California itself stood on the threshold of an era of limitless electricity so abundant that meters would soon be obsolete, or so they said.
As delusional as those times seem today, there was every reason for optimism. The state and federal governments had embarked upon an ambitious program of hydroelectric dam construction, promising absolutely clean and reliable electricity in vast quantities. The electricity generated by the Castaic dam alone powers one and a half million homes. The cost of generating power from these dams is minuscule: as low as a half cent per kilowatt-hour today. At that price, the electricity bill of an average home would come to $31 — a year. And plenty more were planned.
But electricity was just a byproduct of the dams, whose principal mission was to tame the environmentally ruinous cycle of floods and droughts that tormented California, and to conserve enough water to complete the greening of the entire state from the resources within the state.
The real promise lay in the nuclear facilities then under construction. The San Onofre plant opened in 1968, and today generates electricity for more than two million homes with steady efficiency and stunning economy: about 3-cents per kilowatt-hour (or $16 per month for an average home). California has only two nuclear plants now operating, but together they generate 16 percent of all the electricity in the state. By contrast, nuclear power produces 76 percent of France’s electricity, with an unblemished safety record.
Had these programs continued, the optimism of the 1960’s would have been realized long ago. But in the 1970’s, a radical ideology entered California public policy. Its chief protagonist, Jerry Brown, summed it up as “the Era of Limits.” The construction of new dams halted so abruptly that the Auburn site in Northern California literally was abandoned in mid-construction. The newly created California Energy Commission became a graveyard for power plant applications. If just the three Stanislaus nuclear plants proposed in 1977 had been approved, there would be 7,200 megawatts of additional power on the grid today and there would be no energy shortage.
Meanwhile, California’s existing power plants labor under increasingly draconian operating restrictions. In 1998, a four-stack gas-fired power plant in the South Coast Air Quality Management District spent an average of $22,000 per day purchasing “pollution credits” to avoid fines. Earlier this month that price has risen to over $4.8 million per day. On the day Gov. Davis doused the Capitol Christmas tree and urged all Californians to do the same, enough power for two and a half million homes sat off line solely because of environmental restrictions.
The irony of these policies is breathtaking. The two technologies that can generate immense quantities of electricity cheaply and without a trace of air pollution are precisely the ones spurned in the name of the environment.
Instead, California has insisted on natural gas, a polluting fossil fuel that is increasingly expensive to buy. Twenty-five years ago, gas generated 17 percent of our electricity; today it produces 31 percent. It comprises 100 percent of the new power plants authorized in the future. Not surprisingly, the increasing strain on natural gas supplies is one of the major factors in causing home heating bills to soar.
The legislature must face many withering questions about the disintegration of our electricity supply. Much of the discussion will center on the botched 1996 measure that promised electricity deregulation but instead imposed a soviet-style state power exchange. A far more important question is “What has happened to the promise and optimism of the 1960’s, and how do we get it back?” For no matter what changes are made in rates and rules, there is an inescapable reality to the law of supply and demand: when there isn’t enough electricity, it will inevitably be rationed either by sky-high prices or by ruinous blackouts.
It is well within our ability to redeem the dream of the last generation and to finish the job they had begun: to deliver the cleanest and cheapest and most abundant electricity in the history of mankind. All that is lacking is political will.
Senator Tom McClintock represents the 19th district in the State Senate. His website is www.sen.ca.gov/mcclintock.