California’s energy crisis: Not an accident

Published February 1, 2001

California’s electricity supply drama continues.

In Sacramento, Governor Gray Davis ceremoniously turned on the State Christmas Tree’s lights early in December . . . and moments later switched them off. He was sending a conservation signal to the rest of a state that now suffers from chronic shortages of electricity.

As I write this, California was asking that its citizens refrain from turning on their Christmas lights until 8 p.m. each day. If the weather turns colder, they may mandate that people refrain from any Christmas lighting at all.

In Los Angeles, it is estimated Christmas lighting uses 1500 megawatts of electric generating capacity at peak usage. This is the equivalent of a generating station of the capacity of the Laramie River Station, near Wheatland, Wyoming. LRS burns a little over seven million tons of Wyoming coal each year to provide electricity to a million homes, factories, schools, and farms across the Great Plains and throughout the Rocky Mountain West.

Electricity is the lifeblood of our economy, and its supply is crucial to each of us in our daily lives. It is a necessity, like air and water. It allows us to be productive, to heat our homes, to keep cool in summer, run factories and schools, and provide the essential element to the wired world in which American companies lead the way.

Electricity also provides additional pleasures in our lives, things like Christmas lights.

Now, Christmas isn’t about lights. Even the Grinch teaches us it has a lot deeper meaning than that. One need not be religious to know it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and represents an important winter festival celebrating the promise of renewal in spring.

But Christmas lights add pleasure to people’s lives and are important for that reason alone. They light up an otherwise dreary season. They provide color. They’re festive and an outlet for artistic expression. But if you live in California, they may not be allowed at all.

Blame for this can be laid at the feet of the environmental community first and, second, government regulators who adopted the negawatt vision of people like Amory Lovins and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Ralph Cavanagh.

For years, environmentalists have said we use too much electricity and don’t pay enough for it. For years, they have blocked construction of new power plants in California and tried to eliminate coal-fired electricity from the generating mix in adjacent states and the country at large.

The consequence of their success is on display in California even if Christmas lights aren’t. California’s electricity rates remain about 35 percent higher than the rest of the country. At present, Californians care less about electricity’s price than they do about its availability. There simply is not enough to go around. There is not enough to fuel the economic growth of the Silicon Valley’s tech companies or southern California’s burgeoning entertainment industry. There isn’t enough to assure Christmas lights.

Providing electricity is an important business. It carries with it a public trust. But it is not a complicated business. We know how to generate electricity. We know how to burn coal cleanly and efficiently to make electricity. We know how to utilize natural gas in power plants in an efficient manner, even when gas prices are very high. We know how to construct nuclear power plants and operate them safely.

But all of this is being blocked by an environmental elite bent on imposing upon society at large what I call the caviar theory of energy: If you make electricity expensive enough, only rich people can afford it.

Make no mistake: What is going on in California is by design. Environmentalists have had their way. Their success has made electricity in California a scarce, unreliable, and expensive commodity. They have diminished the joy of one of the most hope-filled celebrations of the year, Christmas. We cannot adopt their policies for the rest of us and the world community.

Fredrick Palmer is executive director of Greening Earth Society.