Sunday, October 13, 2019

What voters forget: How 1990's "Greed is Good" energy deregulation led to the California electricity-sparked wildfires and the 2019 power shutoffs

PG&E - the largest "investor-owned" public utility in the United States.

I grew up in Northern California in the 1940's and '50's when Pacific Gas and Electric Co., known as PG&E, was a significant part of the strength of our State then experiencing rapid population growth.

Yes, we referred to the company in a snarky manner as Petty Graft and Extortion. But it was pretty tightly regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission because California really was politically "progressive" as a majority of the population had a vivid memory of The Great Depression, a memory sustaining skepticism of any and all activities of corporate and financial institutions.

But that was then, 50 years ago. Many critical choices were made between then and today.

The twenty-seven (!) titles of the Energy Policy Act of 1992 adopted by the Democratic-controlled Congress at the end of the Reagan Administration detailed various measures designed to lessen the nation's dependence on imported energy by providing incentives for clean and renewable energy and promoting energy conservation in buildings. It didn't raise liberal environemntalist eyebrows because it reflected simplistic thinking.

Yes, there were provisions requiring states to consider new regulatory standards that would require utilities to undertake "integrated resource planning" to create energy efficiency programs which would, of course, be at least as profitable as new supply options. It encourage improvements in supply system efficiency.

And, significantly, it would open things up to energy source alternatives. To us naive progressives that meant solar and wind. You see we didn't understand the implications, why Enron and others had successfully lobbied to open electrical transmission grids to competition by unbundling generation and transmission of electricity.

In fact, Northern California's electrical grid was based upon a complex system which evolved over the then 90-year life of PG&E, a system that not only included a complex infrastructure that involved not only PG&E's power-generation and power-distribution assets, but such things as Depression-Era-built government-owned hydro-electric facilities.

Economic choices entangled PG&E's finances with a set of government policy determinations made over that 90-year period, choices that balanced the income requirements of infrastructure construction and operation costs with customer interests and corporate profitability, economic choices made by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) using a regulatory system that began with a 1911 Constitutional Amendment.

Nonetheless, as explained in the Wikipedia article California electricity crisis:

    In the mid-90's, under Republican Governor Pete Wilson, California began changing the electricity industry. Democratic State Senator Steve Peace was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy at the time and is often credited as "the father of deregulation". The author of the bill was Senator Jim Brulte, a Republican from Rancho Cucamonga. Wilson admitted publicly that defects in the deregulation system would need fixing by "the next governor".
    The new rules called for the Investor Owned Utilities, or IOUs, (primarily Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric) to sell off a significant part of their electricity generation to wholly private, unregulated companies such as AES, Reliant, and Enron. The buyers of those power plants then became the wholesalers from which the IOUs needed to buy the electricity that they used to own themselves.
    While the selling of power plants to private companies was labeled "deregulation", in fact Steve Peace and the California legislature expected that there would be regulation by FERC which would prevent manipulation. FERC's job, in theory, is to regulate and enforce federal law, preventing market manipulation and price manipulation of energy markets. When called upon to regulate the out-of-state privateers which were clearly manipulating the California energy market, FERC hardly reacted at all and did not take serious action against Enron, Reliant, or any other privateers. FERC's resources are in fact quite sparse in comparison to their entrusted task of policing the energy market. Lobbying by private companies may also have slowed down regulation and enforcement.

In other words, the private sector with the full cooperation of Democrats in Congress and the Clinton Administration (Third Way Democrats of the "Greed is Good" generation, not progressives), screwed California utility ratepayers by not implementing a FERC regulatory system. Naturally Clinton left office with an approval rating of 68 percent, which matched those of Ronald Reagan (who signed the Energy Policy Act of 1992) and Franklin D. Roosevelt as the highest ratings for departing presidents in the modern era.

To make a long story short (you can read it in its entirety at California electricity crisis) in 2001 PG&E went bankrupt and in 2003 the voters replaced Democratic Governor Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, which make sense because the last Republican Governor Pete Wilson signed the bill that created the whole mess, a bill written by a key Republican State Senator.

PG&E customers like me saw their electric bills at least double to pay for the costs created by the mess, not for replacing old transmission lines, a task which also needed all that money.

So with the advent of deregulation favored by the "Greed is Good" generation which generation also failed to aggressively address Climate Change, the Town of Paradise burned up a decade later. And we are now turning the power off because of those old, old transmission lines.

It should be noted that when the utility Pacific Gas and Electric came out of bankruptcy, it became the leading subsidiary of the holding company PG&E Corporation. Now it again has filed for bankruptcy with the holding company attempting to make the electric transmission and generation portion not subject to any state regulation.

Governor Gavin Newsom, who took office in January, has already been blamed for what is going on.

Some people are suggesting that the State of California create a publicly-owned utility and just take over PG&E's assets.

In the meantime, the current bankruptcy judge has allowed the creditors (mostly hedge funds) an equal say with the shareholders (the largest group of which are ...can you guess... hedge funds) in the plan for the company to exit bankruptcy which has raised some interesting prospects.

California does lead the way. Climate Change is impacting our economy in ways not anticipated. Having a significant increase in the number of days each year we experience extremely low humidity and high winds has resulted in huge annual structural fire losses because of wildfires.

Probably no one should be surprised that thousands of homeowners saw the loss of their homeowners insurance or huge premium increases. But in Northern California it has resulted in power shutoffs which have had major economic impacts only now beginning to be understood.

In 2017 we read California invested heavily in solar power. Now there's so much that other states are sometimes paid to take it. That headline reflects the fact that government agencies are encouraging many investors to experiment, not really knowing what the outcome will be, not unlike in the 1990's.

Then there is this policy: Starting in 2020, all new homes in California must come with solar panels. Talk about a policy with significant impacts known and unknown. Right now the discussion is over the fact that it increases the cost of a home in the state with the most homeless people. Thus you read:

    The Energy Commission estimates that solar panels will save homeowners an average of $19,000 over 30 years but add roughly $8,400 to the upfront cost of a single-family home — probably pricing many potential buyers out of the market.
    According to a study from the National Assn. of Home Builders, every $1,000 increase to the cost of a home makes 52,903 households unable to afford a house. At that rate, a jump of $8,400 would keep about 444,385 households from buying a home.
    Affordability is the main concern for the California Building Industry Assn., which represents around 3,100 builders across the state and 85% of all new single-family and multifamily housing production.
    “For $2-million homes, these mandates might not be a big deal,” Chief Executive Dan Dunmoyer said. “But in markets like San Bernardino, this will be a factor for thousands of families trying to buy homes.”

Right now that is the focus of the discussion and it looks like we don't even know what we're doing in this peculiar process of completely redoing our energy system, a process that began 25 years ago then making decisions resulting in economic disasters in less than a decade and now wildfire disasters. The cost of the home rises. But utility costs will offset that over a decade or two. Anyone tell the mortgage lenders? Will the additional cost be factored in as $0 impact on buyer income needs because our legislature has adopted a policy on that? Or are we just thinkers so shallow even the obvious doesn't get addressed?

Of course, there are solar enthusiasts. They'll tell you solar panels are great. They have a long life, at least 30 years. At least, that's what we know based on the efforts of solar enthusiasts. Ordinary people, on the other hand don't see or hear any real discussion of routine maintenance needs and occasional failures. Those enthusiasts crawl up on their roofs and follow the instructions in Best Way to Clean Solar Panels.

Or will the utilities discover that within ten years a significant dropoff of output from those solar panels has occurred because they are covered with dust and smoke because of the winds? Will they discover this just after they've shut down other sources of power? Do the powers that be intend to mandate maintenance levying a monthly charge from each homeowner who doesn't thinking climbing on their roof is within their ability?

And the policymakers do realize that solar panels produce electricity, the source of those sparks from PG&E lines that started fires. Ar they aware of headlines like Possible storm damage could have sparked Danbury roof-top solar panel fire and Warning about solar panels after fire in Wellbrooke Gardens (picture at left)? And of course they considered Rooftop Solar Panels Are Great for the Planet—But Terrible for Firefighters and included additional funding for extra training and equipment the hundreds of fire departments around the state.

Or are Californians a decade from now just going to suffer rotating power outages because we don't know what we are doing and won't take the time to study the problems?

And, of course, nobody will remember that this started with the Energy Policy Act of 1992 which resulted in the Enron debacle and PG&E's first bankruptcy because it is complicated and nobody in politics does complicated well.

By the way, PG&E shared photos like those below of vegetation on de-energized power lines in Shasta, Glenn, and Napa Counties to demonstrate why they felt it was necessary to turn the power off during the red flag warning.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Climate Change Black Death Surrounds Each of Us
  Only you can prevent the end of your species

The only 21st Century challenge is to address our currently enjoyed "achievements" one-by-one as rapidly as possible to eliminate the Earth-damaging impacts sufficiently to prevent the extinction of our species, along with thousands of others.

And you must do it, every one of you, as only you can prevent the end of your species. Only you, not someone else.

Let me explain.

"Here’s a reckless prediction: a decade or so from now, when the climate revolution is fully underway and Miami Beach real estate prices are in free-fall due to constant flooding, and internal combustion engines are as dead as CDs, people will look back on the fall of 2019 as the turning point in the climate crisis. At the very least it will be remembered as the moment that it became clear that people were not going to give up their future on a habitable planet without a damn good fight.

"It’s not easy to feel hopeful at this dark hour. The Amazon rainforest is burning, heat waves this summer have killed thousands of people around the world, the Midwest is still reeling from massive flooding, and the human suffering from Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas is just beginning to be revealed. Meanwhile, President Trump doodles on hurricane maps and big oil is still investing millions in fossil-fuel infrastructure that will only further load the atmosphere with carbon and accelerate the devastating climate impacts. Climate scientists tell us that nations of the world need to cut carbon pollution in half by 2030 to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Yet in 2018, carbon emissions grew faster than any year since 2011."

- The Climate Crisis and the Case for Hope, by Jeff Goodell, RollingStone

For the sake of my grandchildren I would like to agree with Goodell about "a damn good fight". But the fight isn't just about "their future on a habitable planet" as planetary habitability is simply the measure of a planet's potential to develop and maintain environments hospitable to life.

The only planet we're considering is the Earth, and the life refers to only humans. And it appears that much of the Earth could become uninhabitable to humans.

That isn't the only option, at least for some. There are billionaires readying spaceships to move some folks to Mars even though it is not habitable for humans.

And, of course, we instantly would assure habitability if we were to immediately return to a 5th Century lifestyle....

But we aren't seeking mere habitability. We are seeking a continued expansion of a 21st Century Western Nation lifestyle somehow made to fit comfortably in the biosphere.

Wikipedia tells us that the term "biosphere" was coined by geologist Eduard Suess in 1875, which he defined as the place on Earth's surface where life dwells.

The "biosphere" is the zone of life on Earth, a closed system and largely self-regulating. Well, perhaps not completely closed as solar radiation and heat from the interior of the Earth have an ongoing influence.

As used here, the biosphere is the Earth's ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships including their interaction with the elements of the 
  1. lithosphere including the crust and the uppermost mantle which constitute the outer layer of the Earth subdivided into tectonic plates including the mineral elements that make it up;
  2. hydrosphere including the combined mass of water found on, under, and above the surface; and 
  3. atmosphere including the layer of gases, commonly known as air, that surrounds the planet Earth and is retained by Earth's gravity.
Though it may be self-regulating, the biosphere is a constantly evolving system of interactions among organisms and their environment.

Many factors challenge the self-regulating mechanisms causing minor-to-disruptive changes that establish new balances within the biosphere sometimes resulting in species extinction.

Occasionally asteroids and volcanoes significantly disrupt the biosphere resulting in significant species extinction and radical species evolution. These kind of events represent a subject that we can ignore while the scientists argue of the meaning of their data. For you and I, which event - asteroid strike or volcano eruption - will cause the change is irrelevant. If we are the animals standing where 30 seconds from now either an asteroid is going to hit or a volcano is going to explode, who cares which it is? Just ask a dinosaur ... oh, that's right, you can't because of what is known as an extinction event.

The concern at the beginning of the 21st Century is simple. The biosphere's self-regulating mechanisms have undergone disruptive changes far more significant than, and occurring far more rapidly than, typical. The disruption we are mostly concerned about is in the atmosphere though the impacts extend to the hydrosphere and the lithosphere. The dramatic results look like this:

The 21st Century Climate Change Black Death is happening now.

Why choose to use the term "Black Death" you may ask? It was chosen because in what we know historically as "The Black Death" the behavior of humans, the expansion of human activity across the globe, combined with a significant lack of knowledge, resulted in that partial collapse of the species.

The Black Death (aka Bubonic plague). In the 14th Century it killed 20%-25% of the world's population of 450 million.

According to Wikipedia, the outbreak was thought to have originated in the dry plains of Central Asia killing an estimated 25 million Chinese and other Asians during the fifteen years before it reached Crimea by 1343. By the end of 1346, reports of plague had reached the seaports of Europe: "India was depopulated, Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia were covered with dead bodies". Spreading throughout the Mediterranean Basin and Europe, it is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe's total population.

Back then people didn't know what caused it. How they responded was a combination of ignorance along with some good judgement. It could have been worse. But because of the severity of impact from the mass mortality rate, society subsequently became unstable, destroying economies around the world, and increasing warfare, crime, popular revolt, waves of religious bigotry, and persecution.

Today, of course, facing Climate Change we are a lot smarter and won't do stupid stuff. Yeah, right....

As reported here last month...

In 2014 in TreeHugger (which claims to be "the leading media outlet dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream") an article appeared with a bragging headline The UK has more offshore wind power than all other countries... combined. The article began: "I don't think the UK gets enough credit for its pioneering work in offshore wind power."

Last month BBC News reported:

    Sulphur hexafluoride, or SF6, is widely used in the electrical industry to prevent short circuits and accidents.
    But leaks of the little-known gas in the UK and the rest of the EU in 2017 were the equivalent of putting an extra 1.3 million cars on the road.
    Levels are rising as an unintended consequence of the green energy boom.
    Cheap and non-flammable,
SF6 is a colourless, odourless, synthetic gas. It makes a hugely effective insulating material for medium and high-voltage electrical installations.

    However, the significant downside to using the gas is that it has the highest global warming potential of any known substance. It is 23,500 times more warming than carbon dioxide (CO2).
    It also persists in the atmosphere for a long time, warming the Earth for at least 1,000 years.
    So why are we using more of this powerful warming gas?
    The way we make electricity around the world is changing rapidly.
    This has resulted in many more connections to the electricity grid, and a rise in the number of electrical switches and circuit breakers that are needed to prevent serious accidents.
    "As renewable projects are getting bigger and bigger, we have had to use it within wind turbines specifically," said Costa Pirgousis, an engineer with Scottish Power Renewables.... 


In other words, the alternative energy sources that we pride ourselves on using might be worse for the Earth's future than the coal-fired power plants we shut down. The SF6 problem should be a critical lesson on the "successful failure" of society in addressing Climate Change. Wikipedia tells us: "More than 10,000 tons of SF6 are produced per year...."

Regarding the 14th Century Bubonic Plague Black Death, Wikipedia notes:

    Renewed religious fervour and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of the Black Death. Some Europeans targeted "various groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims", lepers, and Romani, thinking that they were to blame for the crisis....
    ...The mechanism of infection and transmission of diseases was little understood in the 14th century; many people believed the epidemic was a punishment by God for their sins. This belief led to the idea that the cure to the disease was to win God's forgiveness.

Here in the 21st Century, seven centuries later, we are stumbling when faced with a new threat, Climate Change Black Death. We haven't really even began to consider all the impacts. Umm, yeah, more hurricanes, more flooding, more blizzards, and more wildfires. But according to official U.S. and Chinese documents, the Earth will continue to warm until the planet is hotter than it has ever been since humans first evolved, as explained in previous posts.

And what we do know is the arrival of the rising heat, like the Bubonic Plague, will be an infection all its own. Let's set aside the deaths that already have occurred in other parts of the world that will become too hot for human existence before the year 2100. Parts of the U.S. is facing major problems. Everyone should read Can We Survive Extreme Heat? Humans have never lived on a planet this hot, and we’re totally unprepared for what’s to come. You will learn much about what you don't know about the human body and heat. And you will learn about the cities in the United States that are facing a heat apocalypse and that the cities with their asphalt, concrete and steel actually magnify the impact. And you will learn about some of the ideas and efforts being made to reduce that impact. But you will also learn:

    Without air conditioning, the world as we know it today wouldn’t exist. It’s inconceivable that there would be a city of 4.5 million people living in the middle of the Southwestern desert — much less 20 million people living in Florida — without air conditioning. After World War II, Americans flocked from chilly Northern states to sunny Southern states. It was one of the great demographic shifts of the 20th century, and it precisely mirrored the proliferation of air conditioners. “Air conditioning was essential to the development of the Sun Belt,” historian Gary Mormino has argued. “It was unquestionably the most significant factor.”
    Air conditioning is one of those paradoxical modern technologies that creates just as many problems as it solves. For one thing, it requires a lot of energy, most of which comes from fossil fuels. AC and fans already account for 10 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Globally, the number of air-conditioning units is expected to quadruple by 2050. Even accounting for modest growth in renewable power, the carbon emissions from all this new AC would result in a more than 0.9°F increase in global temperature by the year 2100.
    Cheap air conditioning is like crack cocaine for modern civilization, keeping us addicted and putting off serious thinking about more creative (and less fossil-fuel-intensive) solutions. Air conditioning also creates a kind of extreme heat apartheid. If you’re rich, you have a big house with enough air conditioning to chill a martini. And if you are poor....

We have air conditioning to make our homes livable now. We have air conditioning to make shopping in our stores tolerable. And we have air conditioning at our place of employment to make us productive on the job. And unfortunately, most of those existing buildings will require more air conditioning - sure we can modify those buildings or even replace them, but the capital outlay, the demands on our economy, will be huge.

Just like the folks in South Florida already facing flooding such that leaving, migrating, is a serious consideration, folks in the hotter parts of the country will likely have to move. The economic dislocation that will result will be significant-to-catastrophic.

Finally, we humans must face the reality of what we don't know. For example, consider microplastics.

It was only in the last decade that science became "impact aware" of microplastics in the environment. We should be acutely aware that microplastics really fall into a pollution category of "nanomaterials" which were discussed as recently as 2008 by a publication of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in a study Nanomaterials in the environment: Behavior, fate, bioavailability, and effects which explains in its abstract:

    The recent advances in nanotechnology and the corresponding increase in the use of nanomaterials in products in every sector of society have resulted in uncertainties regarding environmental impacts. The objectives of this review are to introduce the key aspects pertaining to nanomaterials in the environment and to discuss what is known concerning their fate, behavior, disposition, and toxicity, with a particular focus on those that make up manufactured nanomaterials. This review critiques existing nanomaterial research in freshwater, marine, and soil environments. It illustrates the paucity of existing research and demonstrates the need for additional research. Environmental scientists are encouraged to base this research on existing studies on colloidal behavior and toxicology. The need for standard reference and testing materials as well as methodology for suspension preparation and testing is also discussed.

This week, 11 years after that 2008 study was published The Los Angeles Times in The biggest likely source of microplastics in California coastal waters? Our car tires (and other news sources) tell us that our primary mode of transportation - cars and trucks - are the largest contributor of microplastics in coastal waters according to a new study Understanding Microplastic Levels, Pathways, and Transport in the San Francisco Bay Region. The study itself doesn't offer solutions but rather says the objective is to communicate findings to regional stakeholders and the general public through meetings and educational materials and facilitate evaluation of policy options with recommendations on source reduction.

In other words, as quoted in the LA Times article Warner Chabot, executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute: "Plastic pollutes the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Plastics are a big part of the climate change problem…. Since California is the fifth-biggest economy on Earth, we have the potential to lead the planet with solutions."

And so within the last two months:
  • humans in California have started to think something may have to be done about microplastics (and rubber) from motor vehicles (and other sources, but mostly motor vehicles) and 
  • humans in Europe discovered that in their thousands of wind turbines, supposedly installed to reduce the impact of carbon dioxide emissions, are actually a source of sulphur hexafluoride, 23,500 times more warming than carbon dioxide with a atmospheric life of 1,000 years.
In other words, we have barely begun to understand the Earth-damaging effects of the 21st Century lifestyle. Which brings us back to the article by Jeff Goodell quoted at the beginning of this post in which he states: "It’s not easy to feel hopeful at this dark hour."

Actually, if the hope is that the number of humans surviving on Earth in the year 2220 within a new socioeconomic construct will be half the number living today in our slowly crumbling current socioeconomic construct, then there is some reason to hope. But there is no reason to hope for more than that. And the experience of living between the years 2020 and 2220 will be unlike anything seen in the 20th Century.

The challenge is to address our currently enjoyed "achievements" one-by-one as rapidly as possible to eliminate the Earth-damaging impacts sufficiently to prevent the extinction of our species, along with thousands of others. And you must do it, every one of you, as only you can prevent the end of your species. Only you, not someone else....