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Voice of OC: How Should We Power California?

Voice of OC: How Should We Power California?

April 19, 2023
By Fred Smoller
OCSD President Fred Smoller recently wrote this Voice of OC op-ed discussing how to balance California’s climate goals with the increasing need for electricity in Orange County.

Orange County is headed for lots of power outages unless we figure out how to square the state’s ambitious climate goals with the growing demand for electricity.

Sacramento has adopted a number of ambitious (and necessary) climate change laws and regulations which will cause greater demand and presumably higher prices for electricity. For example, by 2035 all new cars sold in California must be electric and, come next year, all lawn equipment sold in the state must be electric. New regulations in 70 California cities including Los Angeles and Irvine require most new buildings to be fully electric. There is every reason to believe that future climate legislation and regulations which increase demand for electricity will be forthcoming.
At the same time, supply growth will be constrained. About 40% of the state’s electricity comes from fossil fuels. The state’s goal is to knock this down to zero (SB 100) by 2045 by growing the use of renewables such as wind, solar, and hydro, but not nuclear, which provides about 10% of the state’s electricity. The state is set to close its one aging nuclear power plant– Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo–in five years, and there are no plans to build new ones; In fact, no new plants can be built in California until we’ve figured out what to do with the waste.
Moreover, climate change itself will exacerbate the gap between electricity consumption and production: electricity-hogging air conditioners (especially inefficient ones) will run longer and harder due to higher temperatures and there will be less water available to generate electricity due to future climate change induced droughts.
We see signs of climate change’s devastating impact all over Orange County–in rising sea levels in our coastal cities, such as in Seal Beach and Newport Beach; wildfires in Laguna Niguel and Silverado Canyon, and coastal erosion in San Clemente, where train service had to be suspended recently. Rising temperatures and water shortfalls affect us all.

At the same time, the San Onofre nuclear power plant (SONGS) which provided CO2-free electricity to about one-fifth of the homes in the area, has been closed, and the proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach, which would have produced 50 million gallons of fresh water per day, was rejected. Also, in the wake of the 2021 Orange County Oil Spill, OC Senator Dave Min introduced legislation (SB 953) to ban offshore drilling.

All of this raises some important questions which have not received nearly as much attention as, say, oil company profits. 
  • Can this demand for electricity be met without fossil fuels, principally natural gas, which accounts for 38% of electricity generation (as of 2021), according to the California Energy Commission?
  • If we are going to use more renewables, what’s the plan for installing billions of solar panels and windmills? Where will they go? Who is going to be doing this? What is the plan for training these “green” workers?
  • Will the electric infrastructure be able to handle this increased load? Will electric lines have to be strengthened? Will we need more and better transformers? Will the electric service panels on buildings have to be enlarged to handle increased loads?
  • And, of course, who is going to pay for all this–utilities, government, individuals?

What can we do here in Orange County to address these questions?  In short, how can we get the power we need without ruining the environment?

Unfortunately, local government in Orange County is terribly fragmented, which makes it nearly impossible to develop a comprehensive plan for addressing climate change. For example, there is one sun but nearly 34 permitting procedures (about one per city) for the installation of residential roof-top solar panels. Also, there are more than a dozen water departments and agencies.
Several elected officials, such as Supervisor Katrina Foley (District 5), have taken bold action on behalf of the environment. Foley has hosted a sustainability summit and initiated the creation of a countywide climate action plan. Non-profits, such as the Climate Action Campaign, which recently issued the Orange County Climate Action Plan Report Card, are also doing important work. We join their call for a comprehensive climate action plan, but one that is enforceable.

Fred Smoller, Ph.D. is the President and CEO of the Orange County Sustainability Decathlon, which will be held October 5-15 at the O.C. Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa, California. See He is also an associate professor of political science at Chapman University.

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