As in so much else, the Golden State’s energy plans look distinctly un-American
JERRY BROWN started talking about solar power in the 1970s, when he was California’s governor for the first time. He was lampooned for it, but the vision gradually became attractive in a state that is naturally sunny and, especially along the coastline, cares about the environment. So in 2006, under a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, California set a goal to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. This year Mr Brown, governor once again, signed the last bits of that goal into law. And this month the state’s air-quality regulators unanimously voted to adopt its most controversial but crucial component: a cap-and-trade system.
More complex and less elegant (but politically easier) than a simple carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system limits the emissions of dirty industries and puts a price on their remaining pollution so that market forces, in theory, provide an incentive for reductions. In California’s case, starting in 2013 the government will “cap” the amount of gases (such as carbon dioxide) that industry may emit, and gradually lower that cap. It will also issue permits to companies for their carbon allowance. Firms that reduce their emissions faster than the cap decreases may sell (“trade”) their permits and make money. Firms that pollute beyond their quota must buy credits.
To Europeans, Asians and Australians, this may seem nothing much. After all, the European Union already has a similar emissions-trading market, and a carbon tax is now wending its way through the Australian legislature. Even India and China have adopted versions of carbon taxes or emissions trading. But California is in America, which has taken a sharp turn in the opposite direction. Congress debated a cap-and-trade system in 2009, but then allowed it to die. Republicans attacked it as “cap-and-tax”, and increasingly deny that climate change is a problem at all. Some even point to the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a Californian maker of solar panels which had received lots of federal money, as proof that renewable energy is a wasteful pinko pipe-dream.
But California is staying its course. Besides cap-and-trade, its climate-change law calls for lower exhaust-pipe emissions from vehicles and cleaner appliances, and requires the state’s utilities to use renewable energy for one-third of the state’s electricity by 2020. In the Californian mainstream the controversy is not whether to do this, but how.
Some firms are building vast fields of mirrors in the Mojave desert to focus the sun onto water boilers and use the steam to spin turbines. But this also requires costly power grids to carry the electricity to the distant cities. Unexpectedly, it has also drawn the ire of some environmentalists, who love renewable energy but hate the mirrors (or wind farms) that ruin landscapes. In the Mojave they fret about a species of tortoise. Elsewhere they have gone to court for the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the giant kangaroo rat.
The progress of the other main kind of solar technology, photovoltaic (PV) solar cells, looks stronger. The price of PV panels has dropped in recent years, and there are plans to simplify the paperwork for Californians who want to put them on their own roofs, whence the electricity can be fed into the grid where it is needed. “Solar trees” are beginning to shade parking lots, their panels beautifully tilting to face the sun as it moves.
There are doubters, of course. The cost of electricity may rise, and some polluters may flee the state, taking jobs away. But California already has one in four of America’s solar-energy jobs and will add many more. Sun, wind, geothermal, nuclear: “We need it all,” says Terry Tamminen, who advised Mr Schwarzenegger. The state is setting up an “interesting experiment”, he thinks. “California goes one way, the United States another.”