TOO HOT FOR WOIDS: I know a lot of you are whining about it, but I for one am trying to enjoy our current heat wave. But then, I actually like the humidity — it makes me feel alive. Having been born in Washington, D.C., I grew up with it. Here, I find myself forced to skulk around the back of Laundromats to get my hit of hot wet air, soaking in the thick moisture emitted by the machines inside. Now, it’s everywhere. On those rare occasions that the mercury starts to get the better of me, I just pretend I’m stuck in some steamy Tennessee Williams play; where others might seek the cool relief offered in the frozen turkey section of the nearest supermarket, I indulge my delusions of a life intensely lived. When that fails, I affect a Southern accent and avail myself to mint juleps. Thankfully, the effort required to cultivate such pretensions has distracted me from the escalating debate over the extent to which our record-setting heat wave reflects global warming. On one hand, there have been temperature spikes over the millennia that have had nothing to do with human behavior. Back in 1867, here in Santa Barbara, for example, temperatures jumped to 133. The heat was so intense that it knocked birds out of the sky and killed off cattle by the hundreds of thousands. That heat wave delivered the death blow to the Central Coast’s landed gentry — who had supplanted the Mexican gentry and the Spanish gentry before them, who in turn had ripped off the Chumash — paving the way for the Gringo ascendancy, which 150 years later, still stands, though on decidedly wobbly legs. And somehow, this daisy chain of historical land grabs provides the basis for what Fiesta is all about. But I digress. We were talking about global warming. The fact is every one of the past 10 years has been the hottest in recorded history. And that trend is holding true for this year.
From where I sit, however, it almost doesn’t matter which side of the global warming argument is right. Fifty people in California have been killed by the heat, and statewide, pet-food factories have been swamped by the deluge of farm animal carcasses washing up to their doors. Chickens and turkeys — which apparently lack the ability to sweat — are dying by the millions. In terms of brownouts and blackouts, California got off easy, though hardly unscathed. Now that convicted Enron chief Ken Lay is six feet under, having died of a heart attack prior to his sentencing, we are told there’s no sign that California’s energy shortages are thanks to conniving marketeers creating artificial bottlenecks to boost profits. Instead our current shortages are real, a function of an ancient transmission system that can’t carry the state’s increasing load. To the extent the heat wave is related to global warming, Santa Barbara’s solar energy guru John Perlin noted with his customary absurdist irony, Californians’ response only serves to make matters worse. As all 36 million of us set our air conditioners on overdrive, we create a massive, desperate demand for more electricity that can only be met by bringing some of the dirtiest and nastiest power plants out of retirement. Their emissions, in turn, accelerate the processes that lead to global warming. For Perlin, the answer to almost every problem is more solar, and in this case, he’s right on target. The cool thing about solar panels is that they produce the most energy when that energy is most needed: during the hottest part of the day. And they produce energy right where the energy will be consumed, thus eliminating the need for expensive, inefficient, and choked transmission lines. Given Southern California’s abundance of solar exposure, one would think the solar option a no-brainer. If so, we’ve been seriously lobotomized. Just last year, a stupid pissing match between environmentalists and the electricians’ union lobby killed a solar bill in Sacramento that was designed to relieve some of the financial burdens associated with installing residential solar energy systems. The good news is that it appears this modest measure might actually pass this year. The real problems, however, are California’s politically powerful utility companies. The single best way the state can encourage solar energy is to require large energy companies to buy back the energy produced by residential solar producers. Right now, those companies offer only the stingiest of energy credits to residential solar producers. Under state law, energy companies are required to offer credits — but not cash — for the solar energy produced by residential customers, but only for the energy they consume. If residential solar producers were to crank out more juice than they actually use, the companies are not required to pay or credit them for it. Making matters worse, the energy companies are only required to sign such agreements with one-half of one percent of their total customer base. One half of one percent! Talk about squelching the solution. By contrast, energy companies in Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Cyprus pay top dollar for energy produced by customers with solar rooftops. In fact, solar-equipped Germans can make up to $5,000 a year in profit from the excess energy they sell to utility companies. On top of that, these governments entice new players into the solar game with the softest loan packages imaginable. In the United States, the only state to pursue a similar approach is New Jersey. Pennsylvania is thinking about it. Pennsylvania! According to Perlin, the New Jersey program has been a modest success, and the Garden State has about 30 percent less solar exposure than California. Here, nobody is even talking about this. The best we can hope for are ridiculously paltry victories, like increasing the required percentage of eligible customers from one-half of a percent to 2½ percent.
Talk about straitjacketing your dreams. But as long as that remains the fashion statement of choice, and we remain content to think small, quit complaining, start drinking mint juleps, and learn to love dead chickens, bloated cow carcasses, and heat waves. Because I’ve got news for y’all; they’re going to be around for a very long time.
— Nick Welsh