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
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
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
, 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


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