Quantcast

Can Gov. Brown Use Elon Musk's Secret Sauce to Solve Epic Drought?

Climate

Last week was startling—but confusing—on the energy/water nexus innovation front. On energy, Gov. Jerry Brown moved forward boldly, committing his state to cut its greenhouse gas pollution by 40 percent by 2030, declaring, "I've set a very high bar, but it's a bar we must meet ... It's a bar not only for California, but it's a goal for other states, for the United States as a whole and for nations around the world. California is now setting the pace and we're very serious about it."

Musk’s secret sauce seems to be his concept of reasoning from “first principles”: electric vehicles are simply, in an engineering sense, better than internal combustion engines; electrons generated from sunlight on a roof are more useful than those wheeled in hundreds of miles from the desert; the right way to think about battery costs was to add up the raw materials.

Brown’s creation of the strongest greenhouse goal to date outside the European Union was immediately trashed by the oil industry, which huffed, "What do you do, take 23 million cars" (now driving on California roads) "and cut that in half?" The California legislature’s response was to move forward legislation that would require the state to reduce its reliance on oil by 50 percent—by providing alternative, lower carbon fuels and vehicles, rather than reducing the state’s fleet.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s considerably more restrained climate commitments at the federal level were being put through the legislative meat-grinder by House Republicans, who moved legislation through committee that would prevent Obama from sourcing federal power from clean energy sources, (under rules enacted by Congress under George Bush!) and also prevent the Department of Energy from modernizing performance and efficiency standards for gas furnaces. House Republicans also decided, in passing the 2016 energy appropriations bill that they would insist once again that inefficient, wasteful incandescent light bulbs continue to be produced and sold in the U.S. In response, the Center for American Progress called on the Department of Energy to move ahead with its standards for the high performance, “net zero” buildings of the future. Obama signaled that he would veto legislation which rolled back his—or George Bush’s—clean energy commitments.

Meanwhile global business leaders—ranging from Schneider Electric to Unilever and the International Chamber of Commerce—teed up an ambitious joint platform of climate solutions requiring carbon pricing for presentation to the Paris Climate Summit in December. So the Republican Party, (the historic party of business), steams backwards on energy innovation and climate at the same moment that business races ahead?

But the confusion on where various parties stand on innovation and change is not confined to the right side of the spectrum. California Gov. Brown—yes, the same Governor—abandoned a 20 year effort to link ecosystem restoration in California’s Sacramento Delta with the construction of a set of controversial and exorbitantly expensive tunnels. Instead of requiring big water users to pay for the damage they have done to natural river systems by financing an $8 billion restoration of 100,000 acres of critical habitat, the state now proposes to protect only 30,000 acres—at $300 million in public, not big water user, expense. Brown called in the federal government to support him, and claimed that he was simply being practical. But the immediate response was to reopen the state’s historic north-south water feud and raise enormous questions about whether Brown’s water solution—massive tunnels—was viable at all, with key voices who had remained on the sidelines weighing in to oppose the Governor.

(Ironically one reason Brown couldn't finance environmental restoration as part of the tunnel package was that he couldn't offer water users 50 year delivery contracts—because climate change has made future precipitation so uncertain that the state can no longer fund water infrastructure with long term delivery commitments. So it’s not clear that water users will even fund the tunnels minus restoration).

Ironically, much stronger ideas to solve California’s quite real water crisis have been proposed from the libertarian right, with Reason magazine’s Ronald Bailey recently suggesting a nice, tidy and highly promising package:

First, allow water banking. Under current regulations, holders of water rights cannot pump and store water underground during wet years that such entrepreneurs could make up shortfalls by selling later during dry years.

Second, streamline water transfer approvals. Every transfer transaction must now be lengthily evaluated every year by regulators, even though the new transactions are largely the same as the already-approved old transactions.

And third, establish dedicated water courts staffed with experienced judges to speed rights and allocation decisions and prevent forum shopping by plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Brown’s tunnels—unlike his climate policy—are rooted in the water politics and realities of the 1960’s, when his father, Gov. Pat Brown, first tried to make Northern California’s seemingly (then) abundant supply available to urbanize the drier south by building massive ditches. Brown himself was defeated in his first Gubernatorial era when he tried to build a “Peripheral Canal” to achieve this goal.

So both right and left, Republicans and Democrats, cannot seem to make up their mind whether they favor the past or the future. (Mind you, the future will arrive whichever side we are on. California’s has promised, roughly, five times as much water as it has to deliver—the books will eventually balance. Clean energy is both safer and cheaper than fossil fuels as a pathway for the 21st. century. But getting to the future can be considerably more painful when we hold on to yesterday).

Which is a somewhat dismal thought. So let me conclude with Elon Musk. After building both the most successful electric car (Tesla) and the most promising distributed energy franchise (SolarCity) Musk last week turned to energy storage. He announced that production from  his massive Giga factory in Nevada—which promises to drastically slash the costs of lithium ion batteries—won’t just be plunked into cars, but would also be made available to home owners as a means to store their excess rooftop solar electrons for use in, say, in the evening, increase the power reliability and let them draw from the grid when rates are low. Tesla’s “PowerWall” battery will be available in either 7 or 10 kWh storage size for home use. America’s grid is already so unreliable that 20 percent of the nation’s electrical usage is backed up by diesel generators or other standby systems.

So having built a successfully business (Paypal) getting rid of paper checks, and another (Space X) slashing rocket costs, plus Tesla and SolarCity, Musk is poised to disrupt the concept that electrons cannot be economically stored at scale.

And he’s not ambivalent—he’s looking forward, not holding on to the past. Musk’s secret sauce seems to be his concept of reasoning from “first principles”: electric vehicles are simply, in an engineering sense, better than internal combustion engines; electrons generated from sunlight on a roof are more useful than those wheeled in hundreds of miles from the desert; the right way to think about battery costs was to add up the raw materials. Musk counter-poses this approach to “thinking from analogy," what everyone else is doing. Analogy takes the House Republicans to the idea that since we have always used incandescent bulbs we should keep on; but also suggests to Jerry Brown that the 21st century solution to California’s water crisis is to complete his father’s 1960’s vision of big ditches and pipes.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Elon Musk’s Tesla Battery + SolarCity’s Solar Systems = Clean Energy Future

Sam Branson: Why Ending Energy Poverty Is a Race We Must Win

Elon Musk: Tesla Battery Will ‘Fundamentally Change the Way the World Uses Energy’

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Sabrina Kessler

Far-reaching allegations about how a climate-sinning American multinational could shamelessly lie to the public about its wrongdoing mobilized a small group of New York students on a cold November morning. They stood in front of New York's Supreme Court last week to follow the unprecedented lawsuit against ExxonMobil.

Read More Show Less

By Alex Robinson

Leah Garcés used to hate poultry farmers.

The animal rights activist, who opposes factory farming, had an adversarial relationship with chicken farmers until around five years ago, when she sat down to listen to one. She met a poultry farmer called Craig Watts in rural North Carolina and learned that the problems stemming from factory farming extended beyond animal cruelty.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
People navigate snow-covered sidewalks in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Nov. 11 in Chicago. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Temperatures plunged rapidly across the U.S. this week and around 70 percent of the population is expected to experience temperatures around freezing Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
A general view of the flooded St. Mark's Square after an exceptional overnight "Alta Acqua" high tide water level, on Nov. 13 in Venice. MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP / Getty Images

Two people have died as Venice has been inundated by the worst flooding it has seen in more than 50 years, The Guardian reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
Supply boats beside Aberdeen Wind Farm on Aug. 4, 2018. Rab / CC BY 2.0

President Donald Trump doesn't like wind turbines.

In April, he claimed they caused cancer, and he sued to stop an offshore wind farm that was scheduled to go up near land he had purchased for a golf course in Aberdeenshire in Scotland. He lost that fight, and now the Trump Organization has agreed to pay the Scottish government $290,000 to cover its legal fees, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A verdant and productive urban garden in Havana. Susanne Bollinger / Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

When countries run short of food, they need to find solutions fast, and one answer can be urban farming.

Read More Show Less
Trevor Noah appears on set during a taping of "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" in New York on Nov. 26, 2018. The Daily Show With Trevor Noah / YouTube screenshot

By Lakshmi Magon

This year, three studies showed that humor is useful for engaging the public about climate change. The studies, published in The Journal of Science Communication, Comedy Studies and Science Communication, added to the growing wave of scientists, entertainers and politicians who agree.

Read More Show Less
rhodesj / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Cities around the country are considering following the lead of Berkeley, California, which became the first city to ban the installation of natural gas lines in new homes this summer.

Read More Show Less