The California Experiment

by Ronald Brownstein in October 2009

Californian consumers use 40 percent less electricity per person than the average American consumer. This conservation is due to the natural advantage of temperate climate and to the aggressive energy efficiency standards that the state has pursued since the early 1970's.

The key to energy politics in California is that the state has transcended the assumption, common in many other regions, that sustainability requires scarcity. The California perspective reflects the fusion of the state’s long-time environmental ethos with the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley. “We look at this as an economic opportunity,” says Doug Henton, an economic consultant to Next 10 and the chairman and CEO of Collaborative Economics. “What’s been holding back other states and [the nation] is this fear that we’re going to lose more than we gain.”

Clearly, some structural advantages have encouraged that attitude in California. It is easier for California to shift toward renewable sources of electricity, for instance, because it never relied as much as most states on low-cost coal (even including its imports of coal-generated power from neighboring states); it also has an unusually favorable climate for generating solar energy.

“This isn’t something you can design as an exact blueprint, a cookie cutter that is applicable everywhere,” says Mary D. Nichols. But in moving toward a low-carbon future, California has its own unique challenges, starting with its excessive reliance on cars. On balance, the state’s energy successes have been shaped less by the state’s underlying circumstances than by the public policies California has pursued.

The big lessons of the California energy experience—rely on efficiency first, use regulation to create markets, use markets to create constituencies, attack the problem from all angles—might be implemented in different ways, but their basic principles can be applied everywhere. California’s experience says the evolution to a lower-carbon, more energy-efficient economy is possible and compatible with economic growth, but that the change requires endurance, consistency, and flexibility.

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