The Uplifting Potential of Practical Infrastructure Choices
It’s understandable that the people running a state as wealthy as California, with a culture of pioneering innovation going back nearly two centuries, would be inspired to set an example to the world. This negates the argument that even if Californians achieve “net zero” emissions of carbon dioxide, it won’t make a bit of difference.
California’s goal, which its elected officials have exported to Washington, D.C., is to inspire the whole world to achieve “net zero.” If foreign nations aren’t willing to do this voluntarily, then California is happy to have our government somehow force them into compliance.
This entire strategy is flawed on many levels. To begin with, honest carbon accounting has to recognize the embodied energy and resource cost of renewables, and when this is done, most renewable energy solutions are revealed to have an emissions cost in rough parity with the most efficient fossil fuel-based energy solutions.
Then there is the growing awareness that other environmental priorities—such as preserving wilderness and protecting wildlife from biofuel plantations, solar farms, wind farms, and dramatically expanded mining operations—are compromised by renewables development at a cost to the environment that may well exceed the alleged, eventual cost of carbon emissions. And to recite a growing heresy, well-supported by scientific evidence, it may be that most of the measured increase in atmospheric CO2 has come from natural sources such as volcanoes, and in any case, the result of more atmospheric CO2 may actually do more good than harm.
But the biggest flaw in California’s net zero strategy is that other nations aren’t going to follow this example. They aren’t willing to impoverish their populations in fealty to what they perceive to be a concocted, overblown, phony crisis designed to further Western hegemony over their sovereignty. For everyone on Earth to consume half as much energy per capita as Americans do, global energy production needs to double. Because energy is the foundation of prosperity, this needs to happen fast, and it needs to be affordable.
For this reason, what Californians ought to be doing is applying their wealth to building state-of-the-art new energy infrastructure that is practical and cost-effective. For example, modern natural gas power plants employ combined cycle designs that harvest waste heat from the natural gas-fired turbine to produce steam to drive a second turbine. But new combined cycle designs replace the steam with helium, which harvests waste heat at much higher temperatures than steam can, which means less heat wasted to the atmosphere, greatly increasing efficiency. This advanced design can convert up to 80 percent of the embodied energy in natural gas fuel into electricity. For anyone who considers anthropogenic CO2 a threat, this technology is a realistic and significant step in the right direction. Why not set efficiency standards and upgrade the fleet, instead of trying to destroy the entire natural gas infrastructure in a state of 40 million people?
For that matter, why aren’t Californians at the forefront of both small modular and large next-generation nuclear reactor development? Why isn’t there a nuclear power plant in California that not only generates emissions-free gigawatts of electricity, but reprocesses and utilizes the waste to produce still more electricity, rendering the eventual waste stream far less hazardous and harvesting far more electricity from each unit of fuel input?
When it comes to transportation, why hasn’t California’s legislature made a priority of widening and upgrading its roads and freeways to accommodate high-speed, self-driving vehicles? And why on earth did California’s state legislature ban, starting in 2035, the sale of advanced hybrids? How can California’s policymakers possibly view an all-electric vehicle, requiring a half-ton or more of battery payload, plus a steel chassis to support all the extra weight, to be an exclusive option?
Why wouldn’t hybrid technologies, which use a battery one-tenth as heavy to harvest the energy otherwise wasted from braking and downhill momentum, be a permissible option? How can California’s lawmakers begin to predict what new advances may arise in hybrid technology, wherein the emissions from new combustible fuels are almost negligible? Why not just set mileage and fuel standards instead of banning anything that uses combustion?
These are questions that should be front and center in Sacramento instead of self-congratulatory, uninformed bloviating over the need to streamline permitting for offshore wind farms and high-speed rail. California—and America—can set an example to the world, but only if it is an example the world is willing to follow.
Edward Ring is a senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).