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Energy: It’s a sick, sick world (and that’s why we love it)

2012 April 30
by susty

I’ve started to read an “Introduction to Energy in California” by journalist Peter Asmus (who apparently also has a side career in music/sustainability). One cool part of this book is that it is part of a series called “California Natural History Guides”; the other books in the series are Air, Water, and Fire. I’m pretty stoked that Energy is one of the Natural History Guides. The series is almost as complete as Captain Planet’s Planeteers: earth, water, fire, wind, and heart. Wind + heart = energy? Yeah, that’s pretty much my textbook definition. There’s a reason why the logo for China’s Green Beat has a heart.

So if I’m so warm and fuzzy about energy, why is this post talking about a “sick sick world”? Well, the history of energy in California turns out to be extremely fascinating in ways that just sometimes baffle me. I believe energy development has often swayed between the realms of capitalism and socialism and this has truly impacted the landscape. It makes working in energy sometimes very painful (hitting head against the wall) but all the more rewarding, and that’s why we love it.

Here are two excerpts from the early chapters of the book that are the subject of my fascination:

Electric vehicles that could travel 100 miles between recharges had already been put on the market in 1900, but the lack of charging stations rendered them impractical for most of California.

Ummm… sound familiar anyone? We’re in pretty much the same situation now.

Armed with Edison’s patents on a variety of gadgets that ran on electricity, Southern California Edison [a utility] was particularly adept at expanding each consumer’s consumption of kilowatt hours of electricity through aggressive sales of vacuum cleaners, electric stoves, and other home appliances. [this is the 1910s, 1920s]

Do you what the utility does today in California? Their revenues are “decoupled” from their sales (rates can be adjusted legally to guarantee utility profits when sales drop), so there is an incentive for them to make their customers more energy efficient. Utilities have entire business units dedicated to end-use efficiency, and ARRA had specific programs for offering rebates on more energy efficient appliances. So, the juxtaposition of where we are today as compared with the historic beginning of the utility industry (whereby it actively created the demand for its product) is pretty fascinating.

The book has lots of other juicy tidbits on the development of oil and hydropower in California which were the main focuses of the industry from 1850 all the way until 1950, when natural gas and nuclear became much more important. Another awesome thing about early energy development…the first power stations were called “dynamos“; I mean, how badass is that? I highly recommend this book for anyone in the energy or public policy fields.

To finish this “sick sick world” post, however, I do not need to go far from my office. In fact, I can just go the top of my building at Lawrence Berkeley Lab (building 90) and take a look at the solar water heaters that seem to be from the 1980s or possibly even earlier. Now for a national lab, that has cutting edge research in all fields of clean energy and carbon reduction and was home to the U.S.’s current secretary of energy Steven Chu, you would think that we could ditch the “first-mover” installation of 80s water heaters and get a full modern age rooftop solar PV installation done. With a lab that isn’t moving any time soon, and a relatively sunny Berkeley, and with the way solar prices have plummeted, and with retail rates in northern California around $0.15-20/kWh, you would think  that the lab has an interest in going solar and saving a ton of money through a wise investment (much more than with those aged, although possibly still decently working, solar water heaters). You would think this, until you found out that LBL has a special electricity contract with prices of $0.05/kWh, pitifully low. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s chart on solar grid parity, this investment should become attractive some time around NEVER (later than 2030). LBL is a leader in research for a low-carbon economy, but it’s a sick, sick world when it comes to walking the talk.

LBL building 90 solar water heaters from the 1980s (also notice plenty of ample rooftop space everywhere for solar PV which will likely never be used)

Readers: What’s your favorite example of the “sick sick world” of energy? Don’t you love it? 😉

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