A Very Mad WSJ Editorial
August 29, 2020
I don’t often agree with Mister Jenkins and today is no exception. His column below is more of a rant than usual. After my first reading, I was confused as to how a blackout in California was worthy of a WSJ editorial - or more broadly, how issues in California are worthy of Mister Jenkins time. After a second reading, I realized it’s a backhanded way for him criticize Kamala Harris and by extension Joe Biden.
My beefs with his column:
Too much renewable power?
Mister Jenkins seems to think that SCE and PG&E are vertically integrated utilities. They haven’t been since the 1990s. California is a deregulated generation marketplace that relies on an Independent System Operator to match supply and demand. He implies that in Edison and PG&E’ service territories, the amount of renewables are greater than 80 percent of the generation. That’s BS. It might be around 35 percent. I am open to correction here but while there was no singular cause for the blackouts, the lack of availability of imported power played a large factor. He wants you to believe that it is news that solar and wind are subject to nature. That fact is well understood which is why California has a large number of gas fired power plants. They can quickly ramp up and run when solar and wind are not available. (Note that in the Midwest the wind is much more consistent throughout a 24 hour period than it is in California.)
Minimal Impact on Emissions
Following Mister Jenkins advice, none of us should worry about our carbon footprint because individually we are nothing in the stack of overall emissions. I prefer to think we should all do our share. California has been a leader in our renewables industry since the late 1970s. California’s pollution is less because of that. I note that California is unusual in that it has so many renewable resources - solar, wind, geothermal and biomass. I applaud the state for using its indigenous resources.
Bitch, bitch, bitch. Californians are free to move out of the state if it gets too bad. I don’t know enough about the politics to comment. I’m not sure Mister Jenkins does either.
California As A Laboratory
This is not a point that Jenkins brings up directly but does in a roundabout way. I applaud California for being innovative and thinking outside the box. It doesn’t bat 1000 but we shouldn’t expect it to. Homelessness is an awful problem that the state hadn’t resolved. But it seems to me that is a state that is willing to try new approaches - and we all benefit by learning from its failures and its successes.
In the comments to his editorial there are a number of comments saying nuclear power is the solution to California’s electricity needs. Currently new plants are not economic - they cost too much to construct. And not principally due to over regulation. My friend Steve assures me that next that smaller, modular reactors are the answer. I’m from Missouri. All new technologies take time to become commercially viable. I believe that is true of SMRs. In the near term it may be that California needs some more natural gas fired plants if the goal is near certainty of no blackouts.
I get it Mister Jenkins - you are not a fan of the Democratic presidential ticket. No need to hide behind California’s electricity supply situation or dismissal of climate change due to humans to make your point.
I will probably regret putting my thoughts out there. I can’t match Mister Jenkins eloquence. I’m just glad this column wasn’t about the Russia hoax. 🤪
Here’s the editorial that set me off:
No climate policy is available that would operate on a time scale relevant to California’s hellish wildfire challenge, except throwing enough opaque particles into the atmosphere to cool the Earth.
Anything that greens might favor, such as subsidizing green energy or taxing fossil fuels out of existence, is irrelevant. The effect would only manifest itself imperceptibly over many decades. To boot, it would require the participation of the world’s major economies, including China’s and India’s, which leaders answerable to California’s voters are in no position to deliver.
I make these points to underline an absurdity. California politicians spend much of their time obsessing about a climate change problem they can’t fix. Their state accounts for less than 0.1% of global emissions. There’s nothing they can do. Last year’s blackouts were theoretically linked to climate change through a dry spell but California has always had dry spells. Asserting a connection between passing weather phenomena and global climate is fraught. With this year’s blackouts, at least the connection is easy to draw. Even Democrats agree the outages were partly due to the state’s wind and solar mandates. Yes, there were blunders too. Enough power was technically available to meet a demand surge well short of an all-time high. But the fact remains: With wind and solar, nature controls the “off” switch. Man doesn’t.
Less noticed is the fact that customers of municipally owned utilities in Los Angeles and Sacramento were spared any outages. Because local politicians are directly in line for blame if the lights go out, the unheralded corollary is that these utilities insist on keeping fossil fuels a big share of their mix. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power gets 48% of its power from coal or gas. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District gets 54% from gas.
Compare this with 15% to 17% for the giant private utilities, such as Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, that cover much of the state. Why? Maybe because their CEOs and shareholders are more easily bullied into signing up for the state's green goals. Maybe because political accountability is attenuated across their sprawling, multi-jurisdictional service areas.
No, this is not a plea for public ownership or small-is-beautiful, but political accountability is needed where market accountability is legislated out of existence by monopoly regulation. If 200,000 PG&E customers across 30 counties lose power, as they did last week, more than five million others don’t. So who is the responsible politician the losers can effectively vote out of office to register their unhappiness? Nobody.
Which introduces our larger theme. The only hope for the many, many things ailing the Golden State is better governance. California has the costliest and least reliable power of any large section of the country; the highest poverty (thanks to towering housing costs), high taxes, a substantial number of working people living in their cars. In its priciest neighborhoods, residents step around syringes and human waste. A new study finds that, in the general flight of working- and middle-class families, the state’s African-American population has shrunk to 5.5% from 7.7% in 1980
Last week the environmental writer David Wallace-Wells used the right word when he said that California’s wildfires make an especially superb “propagandist” for climate change. The only problem is that greens aren’t interested in propagandizing for controlled burns or forest management, which might actually help, but for wind and solar subsidies, which wouldn’t. California would be infinitely more sensible to let its utilities make their own fuel choices. If the state wants to make a statement about climate change, enact a carbon tax to reward low-carbon practices across the economy. Use the revenues to cut taxes on workers and job creators. Such an approach still won’t fix any climate problem but might ring bells with China, India and others whose emissions actually matter.
Unfortunately, the people running the state, including Joe Biden’s prospective veep, have been mostly meme-chasing, pose-striking calculators. Their only career plan: nurse their standing with Hollywood green activists, trial lawyers and public-sector unions. In a one-party state, there is no serious clash of policy prescriptions. That’s how Kamala Harris could reach middle age with a giant vacancy in her résumé where one would normally find some connection to policy ideas.
If the state is to dig out of its deepening hole, it will need something else. It will need, you know, ideas. In fact, only a revolution of ideas can save it from the path it’s on. And the first idea is easy to see. The state will have to wake up from the sheer ludicrousness of devoting so much of its politics to a problem its politics can’t fix at the expense to those it can.