Those attending our monthly meetings or perusing our website know that the World Business Academy was established first as a non-profit business think tank, action incubator, and network of business and thought leaders, with the core mission objective of inspiring business to assume responsibility for the whole of society and assisting those in business who share our values. In the interim period between the publication in 1997 of Profiles in Power and in 2007 of Freedom from Mid-East Oil, both works co-authored by Rinaldo Brutoco and Prof. Jerry Brown, the Academy began to shift its focus towards energy policy, advocating for a switch from reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear energy, to a new paradigm based on renewable energy stored as hydrogen.
This change in focus was accompanied by a shift from policy advocacy towards direct action, largely in the form of the Academy’s central participation in Public Utilities Commission hearings that led to the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) and the negotiation of a $1.4-billion refund to ratepayers over an 8-year period. The Academy’s participation in these hearings shed light on a critical juncture that California now faces in forming long-term energy strategy: as with the rest of the United States, the State’s energy infrastructure is at (or beyond) its projected useful life, thereby creating an incredible opportunity to completely rebuild our energy infrastructure into a distributed system where renewable energy generation is located within communities that are no longer reliant on an antiquated and vulnerable network of long-distance transmission lines.
State regulators are acutely aware of the coming power vacuum, and a wide slate of policy hearings were established to tackle various aspects of not only overhauling the State’s energy infrastructure, but doing so in a manner that will enable the State to reach its accelerating green-house gas (GHG) reduction targets. Unfortunately, a disconnect exists between policy and development that threatens to adversely impact how energy will be created for the Santa Barbara area. While policy hearings aggressively push to develop more renewable energy, the trend in energy development as currently proposed by utilities is almost exclusively limited to building natural gas turbines as the “near term” solution for managing increasing amounts of intermittent renewable energy that will be coming online to cover the upcoming energy shortage.
Utilities push for large-scale fossil fuel energy systems to avoid investment in renewable energy technologies for a variety of reasons: the long operating history of the gas turbine technology, the current low price of natural gas, and a degree of uncertainty and perceived risk from renewable technologies that are available but have not yet had an opportunity to perform in the marketplace. Unfortunately, in a world where the threats from climate change expand exponentially, we do not have the luxury to engage in timid incrementalism and must push the industry to act boldly.
Readers may ask, “what does this situation have to do with me?” While studying the complex logistics of transitioning from fossil fuels to a 100% renewable energy economy, it has become apparent that the problem must be addressed from a variety of perspectives. First, various technologies must be implemented that enable the collection, storage, and distribution of renewable energy. Second, financing resources must be secured to manufacture and install the needed infrastructure. Third, political leaders must be willing to place a high value and priority on developing renewable energy. And finally, a large majority of citizens must demand that government and business leaders act as quickly as possible to replace fossil fuel energy with renewable sources.
It’s no coincidence that social will falls last on the list as it is the least developed variable in the equation. Technologies exist to create a renewable energy infrastructure, as well as numerous methods to finance energy development, and political leadership throughout California has placed a high priority on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The supreme irony is that social will is the most powerful and transformative agent, and can vastly accelerate the overall pace of transition. THAT is where we ALL come into the picture.
Traditionally, California energy regulatory policy is formed in secluded hearing rooms, where career regulators weigh proposals from utility monopolies against opposing arguments by renewable energy suppliers and non-profit organizations dedicated to environmental and consumer interests. Except for isolated instances, the process occurs largely “out of sight, out of mind” to the general public.
Against this background, a Public Participation Hearing concerning proposed energy development in South Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties is scheduled for July 15th. This event will be the only opportunity for the public to directly voice its opposition to state regulators on a proposed development that will haunt us for decades to come. The above-referenced disconnect between policy and development will be prominent in this meeting, as Southern California Edison proposes supplying 95% of our area’s energy from natural gas “peaker” plants that deliver energy and hazardous emissions when insufficient energy comes from the larger transmission grid. Instead, why not use advanced technologies to develop reliable, resilient, and renewable energy that is safe for our local environment and citizens?
Although the Public Utilities Commission initially scheduled the hearing in a small room at the Oxnard Public Library, the City of Oxnard quickly filed—and the World Business Academy seconded—a motion to relocate the hearing to the spacious Performing Arts Center, which holds between 300 and 400 people with adjacent overflow capacity areas. Needless to say, it is critical that attendance at this hearing be “standing room only.”
The administrative law judge’s perception at this public hearing will largely frame her understanding of public opposition to the gas peaker plants proposed by SCE. If she sees a small and disorganized group of individuals, she will likely conclude that the majority of ratepayers are not opposed to the proposed plants in Oxnard and Ellwood. Similarly, if she sees a large number of Oxnard residents, but few people from Santa Barbara, she may conclude that opposition is not as great at the north end of SCE’s power “extension cord” and be more likely to approve the “refurbishment” of the Ellwood peaker plant. Conversely, if a large and coordinated block of opposition against both plants is present at the hearing, she will recognize the consequences for disregarding public sentiment and tread carefully when issuing her proposed decision to the Commission.
Members often ask at our monthly meetings, “What can we do?” Right now, committing to board the bus(es) to Oxnard for this July 15 hearing is the single greatest act people can do to support our mission to bring reliable, resilient, renewable energy to Santa Barbara and eventually, the world. As in 1969, when Santa Barbara’s passionate response to the oil spill ignited the environmental movement, we face an historic opportunity to tip the scales towards a renewable energy revolution. The only question is whether on July 16, you can honestly say you helped make it happen.