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Set an example on energy reform, California

Without better coordination, oversight and study, the state's energy policies may be a primer in what not to do, an advisory panel reports.

December 05, 2012
  • A solar receiver, seen here in August, stands more than 400 feet above the floor of the Mojave Desert in California's Ivanpah Valley at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station.
A solar receiver, seen here in August, stands more than 400 feet above the… (Los Angeles Times )

California can't stop global warming on its own. Its environmental regulations won't save the whole world, and its energy policies won't wean the nation off fossil fuels

What it can do is set an example, and it has approved radical laws and programs to achieve that — such as a renewable portfolio standard that sets a course for the state to get 33% of its power from renewable sources by 2020, a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases and a law that restricts the use of ocean water for cooling coastal power plants to protect marine life. If these policies succeed, they will demonstrate to other states and the federal government that it is possible to fight global warming and reduce deadly pollution without ravaging the economy. Yet a report released Monday by the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan advisory panel that advises state lawmakers, shows that they might instead serve as an example of what not to do.

Without better coordination, oversight and study, California is in danger of committing another colossal energy failure along the lines of its effort to deregulate its electricity market in the 1990s, a flawed approach that opened the market to gaming, cost ratepayers billions, undermined confidence in state government and contributed to the recall of Gov. Gray Davis.

The main problem, the commission says, is the state's piecemeal approach to energy reform. In recent years, a series of major changes has been approved — along with those cited above, there are new incentives aimed at putting solar panels on California rooftops and the installation of "smart meters" that allow consumers to save money by reducing power use during times of peak demand. These reforms were put together with little coordination and no overarching design. Meanwhile, no attempt has been made to assess how much the combined effort will end up costing ratepayers, leading to the potential for a consumer (and voter) revolt if power bills soar. Nor is it clear how these changes will affect the reliability of the power grid.

The commission recommends, among other things, an assessment of impacts on reliability and rates, creation of a plan to prioritize energy goals and a plan to reorganize governance of the power system, as well as a moratorium on new energy mandates until all this is completed. Little Hoover Commission reports all too often end up as doorstops in Sacramento, but lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown should take this one very seriously. There's more at stake here than one state's experiment. A failure by California could discredit efforts to embrace new energy technologies, and serious solutions to climate change, worldwide.

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