USC Price School of Public Policy

USC Forum Examines California’s Energy Future

USC Forum Examines California’s Energy Future

By Matthew Kredell

Powering CA Forum USC Price senior fellow Richard Little, second from left, speaks at the “Powering California” forum.
Photo by Tom Queally

Leaders from government, business, academia, media and the community recently met at USC to discuss the state’s energy future in a forum titled “Powering California.”

The November forum focused on California’s increasing energy needs, the viability of various sources to meet those demands and the impact of energy development on growing the state’s economy.

Although an abundant and inexpensive resource base of fossil fuels exists, California Institute of Technology chemistry professor Nate Lewis, who served as the forum’s keynote speaker, warned that it is important for the state and nation to begin focusing on advancing reusable energies in order to balance out carbon dioxide (CO2) levels on the planet and to have a realistic understanding of the huge scale of energy the world will need in the future.

“You need as much or more carbon-free power brought on in our lifetime as all the oil, coal, gas and nuclear power on our planet today combined,” he said.

Lewis offered three possible solutions to the problem – nuclear energy, CO² capture and storage, and solar power. Of the three, nuclear energy is the only existing proven technology, but it comes with its own risks.

The bottom line from the forum was that there are no easy answers to solve the climate change and energy challenges facing the world.

The forum was a joint effort by the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, The Communications Institute and Sandia National Laboratories.

Richard Little, a senior fellow at USC Price and director of the USC Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy, and Donald Paul, USC Price research professor and director of the USC Energy Institute, took part in a discussion on confronting the economic and technological energy challenges in California. State senators Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) and Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) also were in attendance.

“[We] encourage people with a diverse set of opinions to share their thoughts and inspire each other, and we believe, through this process, the result will be a better future for all of us,” said USC Price dean Jack H. Knott, who also serves as chairman of the board of trustees at The Communications Institute.

Based on a projected global population of 10 to 11 million by 2050, Lewis estimated that 28 terawatts of electricity will be used in a year. A terawatt is equal to 1 trillion watts. There are enough fossil fuels on the planet to cover this energy use for a long time. Earth has resource bases of oil that could last another 150 years, gas 590 years and coal 2,160 years.

The danger of carbon-based energy is that the influx of CO2 in the air is raising temperatures and causing the permafrost, or frozen soil, to melt, which could lead to a runaway-train effect.

There is more entrapped methane and CO2 in the permafrost than all the fossil fuels on the planet combined. These gases were released from the permafrost 230 million years ago. That development caused temperatures on the planet to increase by an average of six degrees, and paleontological record shows that 90 percent of Earth’s species became extinct because they could not adapt.

Whether that would happen again is impossible to predict.

“This is not about sound science,” Lewis said. “It’s entirely about choosing or not to do an experiment with our planet exactly once. We have to decide basically now that we’re going to go on a path to avoid doing the experiment or nature will do it for us.”

The forum also included a presentation of the Powering California research study conducted by The Communications Institute.

Timothy Considine, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming, said that in 1980, California produced about 62 percent of the energy used in the state. The state now imports 67 percent of its energy needs. Even with continuing efficiency improvements, energy demand will increase significantly in California over the next two to three decades.

Renewable energy sources are likely to meet only a minority of California’s energy needs over the next 20 to 30 years. Most current renewable energy comes from hydroelectric, biomass and wind — three platforms that Lewis indicated are not powerful enough to make an impact on a large scale.

Given the continuing increase in California’s energy demand and the slow growth in renewables, oil and natural gas will continue to be required to fill the majority of California’s energy needs for the foreseeable future.

Increasing in-state energy production would be one way to deal with growing energy needs. The study noted that the development of oil and gas in Santa Barbara would create between 22,000 to 25,000 jobs and more than $23 billion in state tax revenues over the next 25 years.

Meanwhile, more energy from the sun hits the Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on the planet in an entire year. However, solar power is the most expensive way to make electricity. Technological advances are necessary to harness and store energy from the sun.

Making these advances in renewable energies is going to cost money – a difficult concept for people to accept given that fossil fuels remain abundant and relatively inexpensive.

“We need to make the case that, if we’re going to do anything, we’re going to have to spend a lot of money on a lot of things and, ultimately, the public pays for it,” Little said. “We shielded them from that fact, and I think it’s time we actually told the children the truth, but nobody seems to want to do that.”

The forum concluded with participants making recommendations for California’s energy future.

Recommendations included tax credits for retrofitting homes to be more energy efficient; rebranding nuclear energy to take away the negative connotation; having policymakers speak frankly about the implications of the current energy path; exporting energy-efficient technology (once created) to recoup costs; supporting research and development of storage technology; encouraging and lifting restrictions to allow private companies to pursue more energy-efficient means; and the addition of natural gas into the power system.