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California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA

The Answer, My Friends

March 14, 2001|PETER H. KING

A wind farmer was on the line, singing the California wind farmer blues. Brian O'Sullivan's wind farm is tucked into the steep, grassy folds of the Tehachapi Mountains. As hot air rises off the Mojave, it's replenished by relatively cooler air sucked out the southern San Joaquin Valley. This process creates the wind that turns the propellers on O'Sullivan's 283 machines, making electricity that is fed to the Edison Co. grid.

O'Sullivan has been harvesting wind since the early 1980s, the pioneer era of California wind energy: "The fact that it was environmentally friendly," he said of his decision to enter the field, "was a huge bonus to me. But I did it because it made good business sense. Or at least I thought it did. Turned out I was wrong."

This was last Thursday. O'Sullivan had been busy mailing out "Dear Creditor" letters to various parts suppliers to whom he owes money. He can no longer pay them because three months ago Edison stopped paying him for the electricity his wind machines keep cranking out, payment or no payment. And so it goes in the great train wreck that is the California energy crisis.

Presumably, this cash crunch won't last. Sooner or later, agreement will be reached in Sacramento or Bankruptcy Court on a method to pass along most or all of the utilities' mammoth debts to ratepayers. This will allow electricity suppliers to be made whole, though it won't be a happy day for California consumers. In the meantime, O'Sullivan is hurting, and the experience has reminded him once more how far down the food chain wind farmers rank in what he calls the "smokestack culture" of energy.

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His treatment by Edison and his encounters with state officials have tended to foster in O'Sullivan a perception that, in the energy hierarchy, his type of operation is still considered little more than a nuisance. "We're like a brother-in-law who you just don't like and don't ever want to come to your house," is how O'Sullivan described the relationship. Such friction has a history, and it goes far beyond one wind farmer's complaints about a deadbeat utility.

A side effect of the California energy crisis has been to revive a seminal struggle thought to have been settled some years ago. In the mid-1970s, environmental economist Amory Lovins coined the term "soft energy," a reference to a universe of such unconventional energy sources as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and, most important, conservation. Proponents of soft energy offered it as an alternative to the hard energy of smokestack plants and nuclear reactors.

The terminology--soft vs. hard--helped crystallize the energy debate. As California environmentalist lawyer David Roe has observed: "To its advocates, 'soft' connoted suppleness in solving social problems, gentleness toward the natural environment, a society that could live more lightly on the face of the Earth. To its opponents, 'soft' indicated softheadedness, undependability, a femininity inappropriate to the masculine rigors of managing an industrial economy. 'Hard' could be praise or pejorative in the same way."

To this ideological clash, Roe and colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund in the early 1980s added a pragmatic twist. Using California utility rate cases as their forum, and the utilities' own economic projections as their data, they finally demonstrated to reluctant regulators and utilities alike that--forget the environment--pursuing renewable energy and conservation made economic sense.

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It was a campaign that culminated in the voluntary cancellation by the utilities of a proposed massive coal-burning plant, and it led to what seemed like a sea change in California energy. The leaders of PG&E and Edison, who once laid plans to string nuclear plants along the coast, began to rhapsodize about "nega-watts" and demand double-paned windows and better light bulbs: "The building of big things," proclaimed PG&E's head, "is a thing of the past."

Unfortunately, it appears that the energy culture did not change as thoroughly as such happy sound bites would indicate. As a former utility official recently told the San Francisco Chronicle, the idea that "real men build power plants with big smoke stacks on top" never truly went away. And so now, in crisis, have come the calls to fire up Sacramento's mothballed nuclear plant, to build the Auburn dam, engage in "crash-building" programs, and damn the environmental regulations, and on and so predictably on.

All of which ignores some fundamentals as reliable as the wind that blows on O'Sullivan's farm. It still costs more to create kilowatts than to conserve them. Nuclear plants do not make economical sense; if they did, the utilities wouldn't have stopped building them. California is a finite land, and to destroy its environment is also, in the end, to destroy its economy. The current difficulty will pass, and these will still be true.

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