Monday, March 19, 2007

The Green Coast

Sunday's Washington Post reported on a decision by the Premier of British Columbia (BC) to back down on plans to build two coal-fired power plants in the province, while aligning with California to meet ambitious green energy and climate change goals. This move follows a series of state-level energy and climate initiatives within the US, putting states and regional blocs in the lead on this issue. Although much less populous, BC, with its large hydropower resources, makes an interesting partner for California and other western states wishing to pursue green electricity, but like them, it will have to reconcile these measures with the over-arching challenge of enabling continued economic growth for their expanding populations. The California example is both half full and half empty, in this regard.

California boasts some impressive statistics on energy and emissions. The state's per capita electricity consumption is among the lowest in the US, and it has remained essentially flat over a long period, with total consumption increasing at roughly the same 1% rate as population since 1990. A benevolent climate is certainly a factor, but even after including petroleum consumption--a major consideration for a state with over 30 million cars--average per capita energy consumption is a third less than the US average. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have followed a similar path and compare favorably with those of other states and countries on emissions per $ of GDP. After accounting for the emissions associated with electricity imported from neighboring states, California's total GHG emissions grew by about 15% between 1990-2004, while population grew by 20%, resulting in a slight decline in per-capita emissions. However, the US as a whole did almost as well over the same period, with emissions up by 16%, and population increasing by 18%.

California has shown it can create a successful economy that is less dependent on energy inputs than the rest of the US. And although reducing GHG emissions wasn't the goal when all this was set in motion, that has been an important result of the state's consistent environmental policies since the late 1970s, which emphasized reducing stationary sources of pollution. Ahead of much of the nation, California shifted away from heavy manufacturing and toward the technology and service sectors, which use less energy and create fewer emissions of all types. BC seems to be following a similar path to California's, as its manufacturing and natural resources production decline in importance, and services grow, so they make a compatible partner in building a larger "Green Coast."

But now things get more difficult. If California’s GHGs continued to track population growth, then meeting the legislated target of restoring them to their 1990 level by 2020 would require an absolute reduction of about 40%, relative to where they would otherwise be in 13 years. That’s a tall order, particularly since most of the reductions from changing the economy are built into the statistics above. Once you've done that, it's hard to repeat, and the remaining "low-hanging fruit" becomes rarer and hangs higher. Requiring compact fluorescent light bulbs will yield another couple of percent (2/22/07), and initiatives like the Million Solar Roofs Bill will help, too, though California's electricity sector is already quite efficient, in greenhouse gas terms.

The state generates nearly half its power from low-emission sources such as hydroelectricity, other renewables and nuclear. Natural gas-fired power plants, which emit half as much as coal, account for another 47%. Because it is already so efficient, extracting further savings will likely be more difficult and expensive. The richest lode of potential reductions here is those attributable to imported power from coal, which are larger than those from the state's own generating fleet, but this, too represents a one-time opportunity.

It would be easy to look at these statistics and suggest that California--and by inference, BC--is unlikely to meet its stated goals on emissions reduction. Instead, I think they render a necessary experiment that much more challenging. If climate change is as serious a problem as it appears, the Green Coast is blazing a trail that we must all soon follow. If they succeed, it will bode well for the rest of us. If they fail, then it will imply that we must either institute more painful measures, or simply focus on adapting to a warmer world.

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