The Canberra Times

By Tony Haymet

Last week, the community of San Diego set records for electricity consumption, driven by a combination of unusually hot temperatures and the humid remnants of Hurricane Odile, which destroyed the Mexican tourist city of Cabo san Lucas at the tip of Baja. On those two days, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE, a partially regulated utility) delivered 4781 megawatts (mw) and 4890mw to its customers, far above its average load.

Why on earth do we care in Australia? For two reasons. On the first day, about midday, domestic roof-top solar generated 275mw and commercial solar farms in the deserts east of San Diego delivered 785mw of solar energy. Putting the lie to claims frequently made in Australia, as the peak usage started late in the day, about 5pm, the solar farms still delivered 730mw due to low cost tracking and clever installation.

More importantly, burning coal generated none of the electricity used. In the last decade, California, the eighth largest economy in the world, has escaped from the tyranny of the dirtiest fossil fuel. Simultaneously, far from "destroying the economy" as the anti-renewable-energy crowd proclaim, California's economy has recovered and boomed in the six years since the banker and real-estate developer "global" financial crisis.

The coal-free achievement is all the more impressive when coupled with the fact that in 2013 SDGE and its senior Los Angeles partner had to shut down the San Onofre nuclear reactor, on the coast just north of San Diego, due to engineering and management failures. Up until that time, it had been providing about 10 per cent of the so-called "base load" power for all of California.

And to really earn the best and fairest award, in the middle of the San Diego heat wave, Mexico lost a crucial generator, and SGDE managed to "pass through" 700mw of vital power from its northern utility partners to Mexico.

California's taxpayers have always been leaders in genuine "polluter pays" pollution reduction. They demanded installation of catalytic converters on all new cars in the 1960s and 1970s. Critics at the time said they would be too expensive, and that manufacturers would never install them "just for California". Now every car in China (and the USA and Australia) has one, with the measured dramatic reduction in automobile exhaust pollution worldwide.

In 2006, California Assembly Bill 32, championed both by Democratic legislators and Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, mandated reduction of greenhouse gas pollution by 85 per cent within 44 years, including an intermediate target of lowering pollution in 2020 to 1990 levels. In legislation familiar to all Australians, additional (and superficially redundant) laws require that by 2020, one third of electricity be generated from any combination of geothermal, wind, solar and other renewables. Current Governor Jerry Brown's cabinet member Matt Rodriguez confirmed recently that California in on track to meet those targets.

According to the legislation, by January 1, 2015, the carbon-trading scheme will include transportation sources. And that is a nice new year's gift for the 10,000 — yes 10,000! — electric vehicle owners in the San Diego region.

Next week the Australian Government just might abolish garbage disposal fees for every restaurant and cafe in Australia. Sound improbable? Cafe owners will be able just throw all their food scraps and commercial waste into the street, leading to substantial savings in running their businesses. Presumably, under the oft-quoted rules of capitalism, those savings will be passed on to you and me. After all, it's not much to just step over half-eaten focaccia and cappuccino slop, is it? You will save — oh, lets say — $350 a year because sandwiches makers don't have to pay for the garbage they produce. Cafe owners who had already figured out how to make quality food with less waste just lost out on the taxpayer-funded bonus.

When you think about it, that is exactly what the government has done (and indeed had promised to do) for everyone who generates pollution in making electricity to sell to you. And if the government were to get its way in the senate, it will use part of our general tax revenue, paid by you and me, to pick up some (but not all) of that street garbage, or rather the electricity production pollution analog. That is what "direct action" truly is: you and me paying taxes to dispose of someone else's garbage and pollution, generated by their own profit-making activities. If it is such a good policy for electricity producers, why not for cafes?

Over the next decades in the world's eighth and second largest economies, California will have reduced its carbon pollution by 85 per cent, and China will have implemented carbon trading schemes like California's in numerous jurisdictions, slowed down its coal imports, and even regulated the inherent pollution content of the coal it uses. Neither have "direct action". Meanwhile, on its current path, Australia's children and grandchildren will be stepping over — metaphorically speaking — a Kosciuszko of decaying focaccias and a permanent inland sea of putrid cappuccinos. Or we could change path, and join the world leaders in pollution reduction innovation, starting this week at the UN climate meeting.

This article was originally published in The Canberra Times