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  • Writer's pictureTab Berg

Political Milli Vanilli

It should be unimaginable that the land of Apple, Tesla and a host of technology innovators has entered an era of blackouts. Again.

Yes, it has happened before.

Silicon Valley experienced “brownouts” in the 1980s and California endured rolling blackouts across the state in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Those crises were not the result of efforts to reduce fire danger, but electric shortages and an underpowered electric grid.

The state’s response to those crises was to create another government agency, the California Independent System Operator, to control electricity routing and supervise purchases of electricity from other states. It resolved a short-term problem, but deepened the state’s dependence on distant power generation and a vulnerable transmission grid.

Politicians exacerbated the situation by forcing utilities to buy expensive “green energy” -- despite evidence that it isn’t all that green; while ignoring the greenest option available: newer, safer nuclear generation closer to home.

Over-regulation and “green” requirements fueled the deferred maintenance and delays in upgrades/hardening of transmission lines. Poor forrest management (including regulations preventing the use of scientifically proven methods on private lands) literally added fuel to the fire.

Our irrational system keeps creating unforeseen problems. In 2017, California produced so much solar electricity during the day that we had to pay Arizona to take the excess electricity.

Perhaps the biggest motive for power shutdowns is money. Unlike other states, California presumes fires that start near transmission routes are caused by the utility, regardless of whether there is any proof of negligence. Presumed liability is a cost-driver unique to California.

No one imagined liability-driven power shutdowns, but experts have warned for years that California’s dependence on distant sources for electricity made the system vulnerable to everything from storms and natural disasters to hacking.

As a result, some communities are clamoring to take over the electricity business. But they’ll face the same challenge private utilities face -- build local power generation or buy it from the same distant companies and transmit it over the same transmission lines.

Building new power plants in every community will be hard. The regulatory labyrinth of agencies, commissions and “grid authorities” will require a massive municipal bureaucracy to navigate. NIMBYism will make placement of new power generation facilities next to impossible -- especially those large enough to meet electric needs.

Sadly, electricity isn’t the only essential utility problem in California: We’ve been in a water crisis for years.

More than 1 million Californians do not have clean water in their homes. Over 1.5 million acres of productive farmland has been fallowed. Fruit trees have been cut down and crops plowed under, leaving barren fields covered in weeds or brown with dust.

But this crisis is felt mostly by poorer families and farmers in the Central Valley, rather than cities like San Jose and Rocklin, so the problem is largely ignored.

And, like the electricity crisis, the water crisis is largely driven by state policy.

Regulations require flushing millions of cubic feet of fresh water through the Delta, while blocking shovel-ready water storage like Sites Reservoir that could provide fresh water to all the homes and farms currently experiencing water shortages.

Like the electricity crisis, California’s “solution” is more government -- massive tunnels to transfer water to wealthy Southern California communities from the Delta (which seems counter to existing flushing policy), while tearing down smaller dams that reduces storage and local power generation.

I am not opposed to removing some dams to restore natural habitat. I have long advocated tearing down O'Shaughnessy Dam and restoring Hetch-Hetchy, which John Muir called Yosemite’s more beautiful little sister.

This wouldn’t reduce water availability -- the water can be replaced by re-operating Don Pedro Reservoir further downstream. Unfortunately, San Francisco politicians have, hypocritically, blocked both options for years while preventing new water storage options like Sites that would have significantly less impact on the environment.

Politicians get apoplectic when people compare California to developing-world countries. But to the millions without clean water or electricity, it probably feels like it -- and politicians protestations sound as authentic as a Milli Vanilli concert.

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