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Watt Now, Jerry? 

The 'Era of Limits' returns

Wednesday, Feb 14 2001
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However vexing California’s current energy crisis may seem, it would be immeasurably worse but for the governorship of Jerry Brown. During his two terms as governor (1975--83), Brown initiated what were then viewed as radical innovations in energy policy, shifting state priorities away from nuclear energy toward environment-friendly sources and an emphasis on conservation. Two decades later, California remains one of the most energy-efficient states in the nation. Brown is currently mayor of Oakland, where he is developing a municipal energy policy for the current crunch, and watching the administration of Gray Davis, his onetime chief of staff, attempt to craft a policy for the state. Brown spoke with correspondent Bill Bradley about the opportunities and pitfalls that California faced a quarter-century ago -- and that it faces again today.

L.A. WEEKLY: When you became governor in 1975, the growth rate in electric-power demand in California was around 7 percent. You decided that level of consumption and waste really wasn‘t necessary. What steps did you take and why?

JERRY BROWN: It wasn’t just me. It was a confluence of events and people; I tried to play the role of a catalyst. It was an earlier time of energy crisis; the economy had slowed down. There was a new California Energy Commission built into the process. Its job was to look at the overall. The Public Utilities Commission took the more traditional approach. There was my energy adviser, the late Wilson Clark, a brilliant man. There was Sim van der Ryn, whom I made state architect and head of a new Office of Appropriate Technology.

I had Amory Lovins debate Herman Kahn in the Governor‘s Office. Lovins said the 7 percent growth rate was wrong. We set out to prove him right. We felt we could get it down around 2 percent, even with a growing population. And we did, pushing energy efficiency, giving tax credits for solar and conservation, stimulating new industries like wind power.

You spoke then of an “Era of Limits.”

In 1976, when I ran in the late presidential primaries. We seem to be running up against some limits again.

So it appears.

With the efficiency emphasis and putting renewables into the mix that we started, California is the fourth lowest per capita user of energy of all the states. It could be much worse.

How many nuclear-power plants did the utilities want to build in California?

There were a lot of crazy numbers flying around. [California Attorney General and 1978 Republican gubernatorial candidate] Evelle Younger was close to the industry. He and Edward Teller ran around together in 1978 saying we needed 40 nuclear plants.

Imagine all the “stranded costs” for the utilities that would have come from that.

It would have dwarfed the bailout of 1996. It could have been hundreds of billions. When I was governor, the president of one of the utilities told me -- after a fund-raising dinner and drinks -- that he hoped his company’s nuclear-power plant wouldn‘t go critical on his watch. He laughed, and I shivered.

Your energy strategy was derided by some as “wood chips and windmills.”

It was. But now that approach provides 20 percent of our power. The “wood chips” business, that came from the Diamond Walnut project, burning walnut shells to boil water and make electricity. There are a lot of ways to do that. Burning “wood chips,” natural gas, cogeneration, geothermal, methane, oil, firing off nuclear reactions, which is kind of overkill if you think about it.

Windmills: When I left office, California was the world leader in wind energy. We produced 92 percent of it. Since then, California has stalled out. Germany has taken the lead, with three times as much wind power now. With natural gas where it is, wind power is very attractive. And we can bring fuel cells and photovoltaics into the mix. We can use the Internet to bring in real-time pricing and resume the march to more efficiency.

You said a while ago of the deregulation scheme, “If it ain’t broke, don‘t fix it.”

They came up with a Rube Goldberg scheme. The spot market has been a disaster.

Now in Oakland you’re taking some immediate steps.

Sixty percent of city facilities are already pretty energy-efficient. We‘re going to retrofit lighting, improve heating and power distribution systems in city buildings, and modify ventilation fans at the city jail. We’re cutting off decorative lights and fountains. We‘re looking for green power sources, and we may put solar panels on the roofs of some city facilities.

Are you thinking of setting up a city utility in Oakland?

That’s very expensive.

You did mention something about a power plant around the time of your State of the City address.

We might do that. But I want to see how things play out at the state level. That‘s where we can turn this problem into a great opportunity.

How do you feel your former chief of staff, Gray Davis, is doing?

He’s in a difficult spot. He was slow off the mark, but he‘s very intelligent and capable. This thing hit a lot of people by surprise.

Do you think consumer rates are artificially low, or do you think that wholesale electric prices are being artificially jacked up? The real supply problem is in the summer, when peak demand is much higher, not the winter. a

The consumer rates are artificially low for the market, by definition. When supply is controlled by a small group that isn’t regulated, it‘s hard to make things work without raising rates.

They want it to work without any increase in rates.

Sure. Howard Hughes wanted the Spruce Goose to fly. Part of the short-term crisis may be taken care of by the recession.

That was the pattern in the ’70s. With a coming recession, you get a decline in energy usage.

Economic crisis, like an energy crisis, provides opportunity for a new direction.

What should we do about the utilities and their financial situation?

Their holding companies are sure sound. We need to sort through their real finances. It‘s very complicated. Bankruptcies would hurt a lot of people. Retirees. The state pension funds have big holdings. And we might not have much claim over their assets. We might lose even more control over our energy future if they went into bankruptcy.

In your experience, how long do you think we have in terms of new approaches on energy before people get complacent again?

Who says people can get complacent again? We got away from [a policy of transforming our energy base to renewable sources] with Reagan and Bush and Deukmejian and Wilson. They ended up liking a lot of the energy efficiency, but dismantled a lot of the renewables. They’re fossil-fuel guys. They took our higher efficiency for granted and failed to plan for the future. This is a problem that is going to continue, because half the power plants in the state are 30 years old.

Most of the living Nobel science laureates proclaimed in their 1992 “Warning to Humanity” that the real dangers are insufficient food, deforestation, species loss and climate change which could trigger “unpredictable collapses of critical biological systems whose interactions and dynamics we only imperfectly understand.” We can stick with fossil fuels and fuel the future crisis or use this as an opportunity to bring more renewables online.

Do you feel the state power authority is a good way to go?

It could be. We have to be careful about centralizing power in opposing the centralization of power. It requires a lot of thought to make sure that government doesn‘t merely replicate the same old patterns. It could be a good part of the mix, though people are suspicious of state government running even part of the show.

But municipal utilities are doing well, mostly sailing through the crisis.

They are. We would be in much worse shape without them.

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