The March/April 2016 issue of Mother Jones includes a thoughtful piece by Gabriel Kahn titled Dreamers of the Golden Dream: Does California have a blueprint to fix global warming?.
Regular Atomic Insights readers will not be surprised to find that I’ve already decided that California’s chosen path for reducing CO2 emissions and dependence on fossil fuel is misguided, doomed to fail if not altered, and only marginally successful so far due to certain uniquely Californian characteristics. Kahn’s piece did little to change my mind, but the way he approached the subject and the stories he shared intrigued me enough to learn more about the man who wrote them.
Summary of Golden Dream
Kahn begins his piece by focusing on the people and areas that have benefitted from the construction jobs and the factory investments that have been made to deploy a large number of renewable energy collection systems in the areas of California where there is abundant sun and wind. Most of those installations have be put in the desert or the downwind side of mountain ranges where temperature cycles cause pressure variations and commercially viable wind velocities.
Some of the areas where wind and solar installations are booming turn out to be places that have experienced economic distress as a result of the effects of drought on agriculture, challenges in the housing market, or the ups and downs of the oil and gas business.
Aside: Many people forget that oil and gas has been a mainstay of California’s economy since the early part of the 20th century. (Upton Sinclair’s classic novel titled Oil was set in California in the 1920s.) That fact is an important part of this story. End Aside.
Immediately following his stories of the beneficiaries, however, Kahn moves directly to Sacramento to give credit for the boom to decisions made by elected officials that provided enormous incentives aimed at attracting the investments described.
All of these advances have undercut a fundamental tenet of economics: that more growth equals more emissions. Between 2003 and 2013 (the most recent data), the Golden State decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by 5.5 percent while increasing its gross domestic product by 17 percent—and it did so under the thumb of the nation’s most stringent energy regulations.
That achievement has made California the envy of other governments. At the climate change summit in Paris last December, Governor Jerry Brown floated about like an A-list celebrity. Reporters trailed after him, foreign delegations sought his advice, audiences applauded wherever he spoke. And Brown, reveling in the attention, readily offered up California as a blueprint for the world.
Kahn acknowledges that continuing the progress will not be easy because many of the most obvious changes have already been made. He points out that the best wind locations are rapidly filling up, that there is growing opposition to grid-scale solar installations in the desert, and that electricity storage still needs massive development to support growth in unreliable power sources.
Aside: He doesn’t mention that nearly all of the gains tallied between 2003 and 2013 disappeared when the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) was forced to shut down. End Aside.
He is, however, an optimistic Californian who appears to believe that there is a technological Moore’s Law for all industries, including energy production. Though his journalistic skepticism shows through on occasion, he appears willing to believe that government regulations can effectively spur continuing technological innovation. He gives credit to an unusually empowered pair of officials, one appointed to a key position and one elected.
Mary Nichols is serving for the second time as the head of the California Air Resources Board; Jerry Brown is serving, for the second time, as Governor. Through their lengthy and repeated service, each of them has made an almost immeasurably large impact on the state’s energy and environmental policies. Kahn frequently points to their unabashed use of the “coercive power of government” to implement rules that have the effect of stimulating some businesses while penalizing others. It’s no real mystery why they have been able to attract sufficient support to implement many of their ideas.
Despite her unimposing presence, Nichols is supremely confident about the righteousness of her and Brown’s mission. “We made these arguments for a long time, but we weren’t too effective because there weren’t many economists on our side. Traditional economic models view all forms of regulation as costs without benefits.” She adds, “I think we’ve demonstrated that you can grow your economy and seriously slash global warming.” I ask if she looks to any other state or country as a model. “No, unfortunately, no,” she says. “We’re it.”
Kahn also introduces a number of the rent seeking innovators that see opportunity in the market disruptions that are occurring as a result of attempting to meet the ever tangling web of rules coming from Sacramento. Near the end of his article, he points out that there are opponents, unrecognized costs, and big challenges ahead. He also provided one more quote that hooked me on the idea that I needed to try to talk to him.
“Who opposes any of our work on climate? There is no question that everywhere you turn it all goes back to the oil industry,” says Nichols.
“I’m not opposed to nuclear power”
Kahn agreed to chat with me on Friday, March 18. After a few pleasantries and and a brief history of Atomic Insights, we had a good discussion about his observations of the energy/environment/economic/political landscape in California. He explained how many businesses in the technology sector see opportunities to take advantage of their core competencies in communications, sensing and computation to solve some “really interesting engineering challenges” associated with supplying electricity from weather-dependent sources like the wind and sun.
We talked about how disappointing it was that opponents managed to push SCE into deciding to close San Onofre rather than to repair it. Kahan also mentioned that he had heard talk about smaller reactors several years ago, but then he asked “whatever happened to that idea?” I let him know there was a growing interest in both smaller and advanced reactors, but that it takes too much time to move from concept, through approvals to construction.
We touched on the fact that the sole remaining nuclear plant in California, Diablo Canyon, is being targeted by the same forces that successfully attacked San Onofre. He did not realize how big a step backward that would be in trying to achieve the aggressive CO2 reduction goals that have been established by the people controlling the “coercive power of government.”
I introduced my theory that much of the opposition to nuclear energy, especially in California, has come from competitors that are seeking to protect or expand their markets. He acknowledged the strong possibility that the theory was correct, but then dismissed the behavior as something that all businesses do.
We agreed that California has a long history of political and economic influence from the oil and gas industry, but he was not aware of any impact that might have had on attitudes about nuclear energy. He observed correctly that the antinuclear movement began to gather strength in the 1970s. That is the same time that oil and gas prices were skyrocketing and great attention was being paid to finding ways to address serious air pollution issues in both California and around the country.
My goal in our conversation was to plant seeds that could be nurtured into strong enough curiosity to stimulate future engagements or investigations. Therefore, I gently explained the intellectual disconnect I see between growing concerns about vulnerable imported energy supplies and air pollution being coincident with a growing, organized opposition to an emission-free, non-petroleum, domestically-developed power source.
He explained that he was just a journalist who occasionally wrote or edited stories about energy and environmental issues, that he did not know much about the history of the antinuclear movement and that he had no real dog in the fight.
Gabe — that is what he asked me to call him — concluded our phone conversation with the following thought. “Getting Californians to change their mind about nuclear is about like trying to convince people in Boston to root for the Yankees. There are better ways to spend your time.”
I guess he would consider me to be either a strange bird or somewhat quixotic. I cannot think of a more productive way to invest my time than in seeking ways to convince people who oppose nuclear energy that they have been misled, often by corporations or individuals with strong financial motives for hamstringing a technically formidable but politically naive competitor.
One way that appears likely to assist in my quest is to continue finding and engaging with people like Gabe Kahn who has both an open mind and an audience. Though he currently claims that he has no dog in the fight and that he is just reporting on the politics that he has observed, he also made it obvious during our conversation that he cares deeply about the environment, that he has no love of the fossil fuel industry, and that he appreciates technological advances.
He also has repeated several times that he is not personally opposed to nuclear power.
Perhaps I’ll be able to provide installments about our future conversations.