Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Behind the Power Outages in Southern California

I was a recent visitor to the LA area and, to be honest, I'm amazed at the place. First, for all intents and purposes, people are living in the desert or areas with near desert conditions. There is an amazing lack of water. Talk about a dry, arid area!

I live in Houston, lived here all my life. It's hot, humid, and semi tropical. Without air conditioning, 24/7, the place would be a nice quiet industrial town. We want, no, demand that our air conditioning be able to function all the time. And that means everybody in the city's air conditioning at pretty much the same time. The per capita consumption of electricity in Houston is probably higher than in LA.

That said, I am constantly amazed at the power problems California has. Brownouts, industrial shutdowns, people dying from the heat when their air conditioning can't get enough electricity to function. I read in the paper how a goodly portion of Californians seem to think that Enron is somehow responsible for their power problems, and I have to laugh.

First, Enron, the crooks at Enron took advantage of laws and regulations set in the place by California lawmakers and regulators. They set up a situation that all but invited someone to come in and take advantage of them. And then they are completely amazed that they are taken advantage of! Every good con needs a greedy, self interested mark. And in every successful con the mark always insists that they were taken advantage of and that they have no responsibility for their own problems. California has an amazing ability to point fingers everywhere except at themselves. Yet, they are the most responsible.

Why? Because, to rearrange an old saying, they want their cake but they don't want the oven in their house. During the Enron "crisis" I had a chance to read a lot of California newspaper web sites. There was a lot of talk about the need to build new generating stations, but nobody wanted them anywhere near where they lived and in California there seems to be people everywhere. And where there aren't any people there are "protectors" who feel that they have to keep civilization and its downsides at a distance. I have no problem with that, the environment needs to be protected, but you have to factor in the needs of the many while you listen to the voices of the few. Life is a series of trade-offs, compromises, and pragmatic decisions that can't possibly make everybody happy all the time.

Which brings us to the second problem: California consumes more power than it produces, at least on a very hot day. Its backup power comes off the grid from out-of-state, which is all well and good, but when the surrounding states are hot and their power consumption is up, where his California going to get that extra power? The answer is simple: it's not.

So California suffers from power problems and brownouts. Get used to it. If there is such a thing as global warming there are going to be more days like this. And before Californians go ape about whether global warming is real or not, consider that if California were a separate nation, it would rank in the top 10 nations of the world in terms of pollution output that helps foster global warming.

There is a solution. Build more power plants. Accept the fact that a well-built nuclear power plants built away from fault lines and major populations areas can provide power at a reasonable cost without having to depend upon fossil fuels. In France 80% of the power consumed comes from nuclear facilities. Take a lesson from them. They have come to terms with their power needs and have pragmatically gotten on with their collective lives.

Alas, that's not going to happen because California is the home of the world "not in my backyard" movement. There are always going to be enough naysayers and neo-Luddites to throw their sabots into the wheels of progress.

I can sit here in Houston in cool, collected comfort and wag my finger at you only because we have come to terms with our energy consumption. Our supply takes into account the days of the summer when it is known to get hot and energy usage spikes.

If California cannot collectively get its excrement together and do what is necessary to keep their society and state operating, then it will get scant sympathy from the rest of the country. We have our own problems and we are busy dealing with them.

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Two parting observations: I noticed a few comments about Hoover dam and some endangered fish. You have bigger problems with Hoover dam than that fish. I had a chance to stop at Hoover dam on my vacation. The water level is dropping because of drought. The lower the water level, the less power the turbines generate. If the water level drops to a certain point, the turbines will not operate. Because Southern California exists in desert like conditions it needs water. Because of the drought more water is being drawn from Lake Mead to make up for the shortfall, which in turn decreases the ability to generate electricity. Yes, California, at least Southern California, has problems.

The other observation is this: there are a great many people in southern California that seem to think that they can operate without air conditioning. And, in this, I have to agree with them. Because of the arid nature of the area, i.e. the lack of humidity, with a nice breeze or good ceiling fans it is much easier to tolerate higher temperatures than it would be in Houston. The trouble is everybody in California has an air conditioner and, when it gets hot enough, those who try to mostly exist without air conditioning will break down and cut it on. You get an energy consumption spike. Since the average usage expected seems to be predicated on the idea that a many are trying to live without air conditioning or at least a minimal air conditioning, when everybody cuts on their AC unit, surprise, surprise, suddenly there isn't enough power to go around.


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