Matt Niswonger
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Energy reform is the solution to climate change

Central Utah Coal-Fired Power PlantIf you are paying attention to the climate change discussion lately, you’ve probably noticed that things have gotten quite hysterical. In the last year it’s become clear to most of us that the time for discussion is over, and the time for meaningful action has arrived. Despite what a few stubborn holdouts are saying, the scenario is way closer to “worst case” than most of us thought five years ago.

Unfortunately this problem will not be solved by changing light bulbs, adding weather stripping to our windows or buying fuel-efficient vehicles. We need sweeping reforms at the policy level. Specifically we need to address the elephant in the room: electricity.

In California, approximately 70% of the electricity we buy from PG&E and Southern California Edison is derived from fossil fuels. This dirty power accounts for the vast majority of our annual carbon emissions, which in 2014 are projected to reach 40 billion tons globally—another all-time high.

If the majority of climate experts are right about the situation we are in, we simply don’t have time to sit around and squabble. It’s really cool that electric cars are getting popular, but the fact is, every time we charge those cars, or turn on the TV, or open the refrigerator, it’s killing us.

California can take a leadership position and demand that 50% of the electricity our utilities distribute be sustainably derived in five years, and then 75% in ten years. This represents radical energy reform, and I believe we need to start on this now.

Utility-scale solar and wind are the only way to achieve this, and the price tag will be in the billions of dollars. This level of energy reform will create a cascade of effects that will change our state forever. The first effect is that electricity will get very expensive. Similar to organic fruits and vegetables when they first broke into the marketplace, the price of electricity will be painfully high initially.

The second effect is that residential solar—AKA distributed generation—will instantly become much more attractive and will rapidly account for up to 20% of statewide power generation, instead of today’s paltry 1%-2%.

The third effect is that large utilities like PG&E and SoCal Edison will have to re-invent themselves. From top down monopolies with highly paid executives (PG&E CEO Tony Earley made about $9.5 million last year), our large utilities will become competitors alongside a plethora of energy companies in a distributed marketplace. That’s a good thing for California.

The other good news is that the inconvenience will only be temporary. Right now, solar panels are getting more efficient every year. The technology is improving rapidly as a result of net metering and other solar incentive programs. Until very recently it took four solar panels to generate a kilowatt of power. Now it only takes three. In the very near future each three-foot by five-foot solar panel will generate as much as a kilowatt of electricity by itself. Over time, the price of solar modules will go down much like flat screen TVs did ten years ago.

The other good news is that the rest of the nation and the world will be inspired by California. We will become the global leader in sustainable energy, and this will provide lasting economic benefits. In fact, it’s already happening: California now leads the nation in residential and utility scale solar.

If radical energy reform seems naïve and utopian to you, consider this: we don’t have a choice. We need to work together with clarity and conviction. Or just keep squabbling over climate science and watch the mass extinctions begin within our lifetime.

Personally, I don’t want to be part of the generation that goes down in history for not stopping runaway climate change when we had the chance.

Here’s another way to think about it. Two generations ago America pulled together and survived World War II. Last generation we pulled together and survived the Cold War and nuclear proliferation. Now we simply must pull together and survive manmade climate change. Not rising to this challenge is cowardly and unthinkable.

If you have any thoughts on climate change and energy policy, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line via email at

Thanks for reading!

— Matt Niswonger