The High Cost of California Environmentalism

With Thanksgiving in two weeks, I have to start by giving thanks that my family and home have been safe from the fires we have seen recently. I have many friends who were evacuated or lost power. And seeing the homes that burned was sobering for everyone living in California.

The smoke, power outages, and freeway closures impacted life in the San Fernando Valley – forcing at least one local nonprofit to cancel its major fundraiser, losing desperately-needed money which could have been spent on services; closing schools, and endangering people in poor health for whom the smoke and lack of electricity was not an inconvenience but a real danger.

I hope that the stories we’ve heard will illustrate something I’ve been talking about for years now – the importance of energy reliability and affordability. Over the last few years, certain environmentalist groups have coalesced around a single energy policy – remove all trace of fossil fuels from our city and state. And they have the right to campaign on their one issue as much as they want.

But I remain concerned that Los Angeles and California elected officials have embraced this as a purity test for energy policy without fully understanding the nuance or context of the world. They seem to think of energy as a dichotomy – electricity fueled by wind and solar is good; all other forms of energy are bad.

As we’ve seen in the last few weeks, electricity is not free from environmental costs. The smoke from the fires, the blanket of fire retardant over the hills, the infrastructure that will need to be rebuilt – those all have an environmental cost. And they have a human cost: families who can’t afford to miss work but struggle to get around closed roads, small businesses which lose customers when people hunker down at home, parents who need to find child care when schools close.

The planned power outages which have affected millions of Californians have a cost, too, causing people to turn to inefficient back-up generators, losing fresh food and wages, causing traffic accidents and medical emergencies, and bringing entire regions to a grinding halt.

I think that anyone who continues to beat the drum that electricity is a magic, emission-free energy source is deluded. The proposals to bury cables underground or create micro-grids are willfully ignorant of the economics. Someone has to pay, and ratepayers already are struggling with the cost of living in California – which survey after survey shows is the majority of Californians – aren’t going to be able to cope with these costs being passed onto them.

All energy, including wind and solar, has environmental costs, human costs, and opportunity costs. The minerals and metals required for these technologies have huge environmental costs, not to mention raise serious human rights issues. Batteries have a limited life cycle and are expensive to recycle. Wind turbines have been shown to change local weather patterns and kill birds and bats.

And we need to consider the opportunity costs, as well. Last year, Metro chose to replace many of its natural-gas powered buses with electric buses: I continue to wonder whether the resources put into the conversion would have been better spent on increasing services, bringing more people onto transit and reducing the number of cars on the road.

And for California to consider itself an environmental leader on the global stage, the technologies we produce have to be competitive – because the biggest growth in emissions is coming from China, which is still relying on the cheapest fuel, coal. I would say that developing imperfect but affordable energy solutions will benefit the globe many times more than “perfect” technology, which only the richest communities in the world can afford.

So when certain environmentalists tell you that all fossil fuels are bad, and renewable electricity is good, bear these things in mind. The fires we’ve experienced have illustrated the message: we need to consider the nuance and complexity of energy issues in California thoughtfully and without falling into the trap of vilifying any single technology.

Stuart Waldman is president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association.