Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Proud to be a Californian

Well, not always. I mean, it's a little embarrassing to have a fading action hero with orange hair as your Governator. But still. Sometimes California does me proud.

Check out this very long article in the New York Times about California's efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.
In the Rocky Mountain States and the fast-growing desert Southwest, more than 20 power plants, designed to burn coal that is plentiful and cheap, are on the drawing boards. Much of the power, their owners expected, would be destined for the people of California.

But such plants would also be among the country’s most potent producers of carbon dioxide, the king of gases linked to global warming. So California has just delivered a new message to these energy suppliers: If you cannot produce power with the lowest possible emissions of these greenhouse gases, we are not interested.

“When your biggest customer says, ‘I ain’t buying,’ you rethink,” said Hal Harvey, the environment program director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in Menlo Park, Calif. “When you have 38 million customers you don’t have access to, you rethink. Selling to Phoenix is nice. Las Vegas is nice. But they aren’t California.”

California’s decision to impose stringent demands on suppliers even outside its borders, broadened by the Legislature on Aug. 31 and awaiting the governor’s signature, is but one example of the state’s wide-ranging effort to remake its energy future.

The Democratic-controlled legislature and the Republican governor also agreed at that time on legislation to reduce industrial carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent by 2020, a measure that affects not only power plants but also other large producers of carbon dioxide, including oil refineries and cement plants.

The state’s aim is to reduce emissions of climate-changing gases produced by burning coal, oil and gas. Other states, particularly New York, are moving in some of the same directions, but no state is moving as aggressively on as many fronts. No state has been at it longer. No state is putting more at risk.

Whether all this is visionary or deluded depends on one’s perspective. This is the state that in the early 1970’s jump-started the worldwide adoption of catalytic converters, the devices that neutralize most smog-forming chemicals emitted by tailpipes. This is the state whose per capita energy consumption has been almost flat for 30 years, even as per capita consumption has risen 50 percent nationally.

Taking on global warming is a tougher challenge. Though California was second in the nation only to Texas in emissions of carbon dioxide in 2001, and 12th in the world, it produced just 2.5 percent of the world’s total. At best, business leaders asked in a legislative hearing, what difference could California’s cuts make? And at what cost?

California, in fact, is making a huge bet: that it can reduce emissions without wrecking its economy, and therefore inspire other states — and countries — to follow its example on slowing climate change.
I learned a few things that surprised me. California, a state synonymous with car culture, uses less gasoline per capita than all but six states. California, thanks to stringent energy-saving requirements, uses the lowest amount of electricity of any state in the US and has in fact kept its consumption flat since the mid-1970s, when the average American's has gone up by 50%.

California is building solar roofs, mandating renewable energy supplies, capping carbon dioxide emissions. Though some business interests have resisted mightily, others are signing up and making money.
California businesses and investors, public and private, are getting into the act. The state’s huge pension fund, Calpers, is committing just under $1 billion to renewable-energy investments. Among the early incentive-driven ventures in solar power are the homes in the Carsten Crossings subdivision in Rocklin, a Sacramento suburb. In August, Mr. Schwarzenegger signed legislation making solar panels a standard option for new-home buyers by 2012 and ensuring that utilities reduce homeowners’ bills based on the electricity returned to the grid.

Some of those incentives were available when construction started. Now four families have moved in. They see themselves as pragmatists, not crusaders. “This is the next logical step” in construction, said one of the homeowners, Lt. Col. Thomas Sebens, a specialist in drone aircraft at Beale Air Force Base.

Their roofs show how public and private decisions, markets and government, have meshed. T. J. Rodgers, a fiercely anti-regulatory entrepreneur, underwrote the solar cells’ production. The PowerLight Corporation, based near San Francisco, bought the cells from Mr. Rodgers’s company, the SunPower Corporation, and turned them into roof tiles. The tiles ended up on houses built by Grupe Homes, based in Stockton, because state utility regulators established a $5,500 state-financed rebate for builders who install similar systems, which cost $20,000. Federal law gives home buyers a $2,000 tax credit; state law guarantees lower electric bills as utilities buy back power homeowners do not need.

The July utility bills, the new homeowners’ first, were the talk of the neighborhood.

Larry Brittain, an office products salesman with a four-bedroom, 2,400-square-foot home, was the winner at $73.27 for electricity in the month ending July 25 — the hottest July on record. For the last 10 June days in a similar house nearby, his bill was $103.

“This is a bet with a winning hand,” Mr. Brittain said. “You can’t lose.”
There are so many inspiring things in this article – all illustrations of the visionary impulse that has always separated California from the rest of the pack. The idea that the government has a positive role to play — that it can drive industry and technology by imposing certain requirements — is to me the definition of what government can and should do. And if the Bush Administration's America can't lead by example...well, maybe the Governator's Kuh-lee-foe-nee-uh can.

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