The Energy Overseer 

More from the Wayback Machine

It seems that not a month goes by without some news item that adds another piece to the continuing story of the evolution of the electric utility industry that I set out to document many years ago. Sometimes, it takes an entire decade for things to resolve. This page will periodically attempt to tie current energy/environmental headlines to a precipitating event, or at least to a previous time I've reported about an issue.

December 2014

As the calendar year comes to an end, institutions of all types gear themselves for a wave of retirements and personnel shifts. In the energy world, the prospect of losing long-term institutional memory and experienced staff to retirement has been a key concern for many years. But it seems to come up again now that the economy has stabilized and many who previously postponed retirement are now reconsidering. Over the course of my journalism career, I've addressed the expected "wave" of retirements several times, including doing the cover feature article for the very first issue of EnergyBiz magazine in 2005. Permutations of that article also appeared in the Purple Pengun newsletter for Human Resource professionals, in Energy Pulse, and for California Current.

As my own hair gets greyer, I look around and see many of my contemporaries heading into retirement -- at the CPUC, in the utility and energy business and among my longtime friends from college, high school and early scuffling days. I'm nowhere near ready for retirement myself, in fact, I feel my fourth career has just really gotten off the ground. Personally, I look forward to using my experience and perspective in my work, and passing along what little wisdom I might possess to the next generation of energy professionals.

Besides -- who can afford to live in San Francisco without a job?

November 2014

Like a comet that graces the skies on a cyclical basis, a California governmental reform agency is revisitng the nature of energy regulation, calling for changes and possible reform of the California Public Utilities Commission. The Milton Marks Commission on California Government Organization and Reform -- more popularly known as the Little Hoover Commission -- has for several decades been trying to consolidate California energy agencies. Hardly anyone listens, but they keep trying. The most recent Little Hoover Commission report, issued in late October, calls for a moratorium on passing new energy legislation in the state until a comprehensive energy policy is crafted. Oh, and by the way, it said, the State should consider whether the CPUC is really up to the challenge. The report found a need to review whether governance structures designed decades ago are nimble enough to tackle a rapidly evolving, technology-driven electricity system" and questioned whether "a more modern approach might improve accountability and transparency."

Actually, the reorganization effort never goes anywhere, and anyone who thinks California really needs another energy policy is as out of touch as it thinks the CPUC might be. However, the question of how much our Legislature, Governor and Agency imposed policies might cost us is always a worthy query.

Over the years, I've reported about the Little Hoover Commission and Legislative attempts to reorganize or consolidate energy agencies. In this Bottom Lines column from 1991, I explored the history of the CPUC and its sister agency, the California Energy Commission. "Needed, Regulation to Fit the Times" CEM, April 1991

And more recently, I recounted attempts to pull together the many threads of California's multiple energy policies in this California Current column, called "Roadmaps and Rearview Mirrors" from February 2012

Finally, there's the question of "The Cost of Doing Good Things" and "What's All This Going to Cost?" also from Current in March 2007, with specific reference to Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Reduction policies.

Maybe you have an answer....

October 2014

Loma Prieta Earthquake 25th Anniversary

October 17, 1989, would have been an historic day in the San Francisco Bay Area even if there was not a massive, deadly earthquake. The SF Giants and Oakland Althletics were just about to start the first and only Bay Bridge World Series when, at 5:04 pm, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake rumbled up the Loma Prieta fault. Dozens of persons died, and electricity and natural gas service was cut to over one million in Pacific Gas & Electric territory.

These two articles from California Energy Markets newsletter capture the immediate impacts and provide a sense of the long-lasting reverberations from the Loma Prieta quake, now 25 years ago.


September 2014

Public Parklands Overrun with Illegal Marijuana Farms

There are stories that journalists call "evergreen", meaning they can be refreshed and rerun just about any time. There's a subcategory of seasonal evergreens, which are stories that seem to recur about the same time each year, and younger reporters are assigned to try to add some currency to the old tales. One of the California late-summer evergreens is an "expose" of illegal marijuana farming on remote state and federal lands, often linked to Mexican drug cartels to add that illegal alien element.

One reason for the timing of these stories is that drug enforcement agents wait until just before harvest to swoop in with helicopters, machetes and sniffing dogs. That makes for better photo ops and heavier weight counts so the "street value" of the seized hemp can be inflated.

Still, any hikers who inadvertantly stumble onto an illegal operation in the deep woods have cause for concern about their safety if caught by armed guards.

Back in 2007, while serving as editor for E&E's Land Letter, which had public lands as its primary beat, I followed one joint state-federal operation to eradicate marijuana in California's North Coast parks.

Join Operation Alesia here.

August 2014

Northeast Blackout Remembered

This month marks the 11th anniversary of the 2003 Blackout that covered much of the Northeast U.S. and Canada in darkness. Experts are still learning lessons from that event, and our energy policies are still trying to solve some of the problems that spurred this incident.

Shortly after the blackout, I shared my own "lessons learned" exercise, about journalism's difficulties in covering technical issues:

Black Holes in Blackout Coverage Sept. 26, 2003 (NASA photo)

July 2014

Yosemite Marks 150th Anniversary as America's First National Park

In 1864, America did something unprecedented by setting aside a portion of its most beautiful and valuable lands for the enjoyment and edification of its citizens. On June 30, 1864, while the nation was still engaged in a bloody Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln established the Yosemite Grant, preserving forever 39,000 acres of California's most spactacular scenery (since expanded to 760,000 acres) for America's first and, arguably, most popular National Park with over 3.5 million visitors annually.

Ever since, Yosemite has been subject to extreme use, and the tension between preservation and public access continues to this day. Back in July 2005, as Western correspondent for E&E's Greenwire, I spent some time in Yosemite, documenting the attempts of Park management to meet requirements of the Wild and Scenc Rivers Act on the Merced River, while accommodating public demands for more amenities in the Park. Many of the issues raised in that article continue to this day, although an attempt to reach compromise appears to be working for the benefit of future generations of Park visitors.

Find the July 15, 2005, article here.

Then about two years later, in May 2007, I revisited the Park management's attempts to implement the Yosemite Valley Plan, despite lawsuits and adverse actions. See The Land Letter article here.

June 2014

Japanese Nuclear Drama is Deeper than Media Shows

A Japanese judge has rejected the restart of two nuclear reactors owned by Kansai Electric Power, showing doubt that the power plants are safe from potential seismic activity. More than 50 nuclear plants in Japan remain out of service more than three years after the Fukushima nuclear facility was inundated by earthquake induced flooding waters and revealed the huge vulnerability of the nation's dependence on nuclear power.

Back in 2004, I wrote about the increasing skepticism of the Japanese public about nuclear energy and its risks, based on reaction to a fatal industrial accident at the Mihama nuclear unit. This article for Energy Central generated more reader reaction than anything I'd ever written, showing the huge divide in the energy community over nuclear power.

I was, perhaps, a decade early in declaring Japan's reaction against nuclear as a fatal blow. But I'll stand by my opinion expressed at the time that the government's backing of nuclear power was on shaky grounds.

See the Business Electric report here. If you think Climate Change denial is adamant, it is nothing compared to nuclear denial. Just do a Google search for recent Forbes Magazine articles about the Japanese situation and the comments filed. The "debate" is truly amazing, given the reality.

May 2014

California Energy Markets Marks 25th Anniversary

On May 5, 1989, the California Energy Markets newsletter came to life -- five hours past deadline (oops) and a jam-packed 20 pages in length. CEM was a novelty at the time, an energy trade publication with a sense of humor and drama, and a decidely outsider's perspective of the utility industry. I served as Editor, and eventually Associate Publisher and co-owner, of CEM for about 13 years. Over the years, I was fortunate to work with some terrific journalists who brought fresh insights to the coverage of regulatory policy, legislation, and energy market formation and destruction. I'm proud to say we accomplished some things that never happen in trade journalism -- like winning top awards from the prestigious National Press Club and other entities for our coverage of the Western Energy Crisis in 2000-2001. Happily, the newsletter continues to this day with a newer crew of journalists who still do a great job covering the California market and regulatory scene.

In the May 2, 2014, issue of CEM, current editor Chris Raphael's Bottom Lines column reflects on the newsletter's first 25 years, and he asks me about the old days. Although I generally prefer to look forward, join me on this trip back in time.

April 2014

Hunters Point Shipyard Inches Toward CleanTech Hub

Nearly 8 years after Pacific Gas & Electric decommissioned its 1927 vintage power station in the Hunters Point district, the City of San Francisco appears to be moving ahead with a long-promised plan to turn the nearby naval shipyard property into a "CleanTech Zone." Several non-profit groups, including CalCEF Ventures and the Clean Coalition are each attempting to develop various aspects of a community energy plan that could include a microgrid, zero-net-energy buildings, and potentially, cleantech manufacturing as part of a new 12,000 resident neighborhood being developed on the site and at adjacent Candlestick Point.

Still, the site of the now-dismantled power plant remains open for some future use -- and a still operating PG&E substation could provide needed flexible and reliable back-up power for the constrained San Francisco peninsula -- if only the community, the city, and the utility could agree on a plan.

Back in 2006, I did several articles for E&E's Land Letter about the promise of Hunters Point, including:

May 24, 2006, article about the decommissioning ceremony when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom promised a cleaner future;

November 9, 2006, piece on the shipyard cleanup effort; and,

May 2006 On-site report for California Current about the last days of operations at the 80-year-old power station.

March 2014

Risk and Utilities

The U.S. Department of Energy and National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) recenty held a utility "Risk Management" gaming session in Washington, DC. The participants did role playing under various emergency scenarios -- including a major snow storm, which pre-saged a storm that hit DC the next day.

Utilities face myriad risks everyday, and while the industry has been focused recently on cybersecurity issues, there are always physical, financial and operational risks to take into account. At the CPUC, I've recently been working on a rulemaking to incorporate risk analysis into investment decisions for utility General Rate Cases. But several years ago, I addressed the kind of gaming programs recently conducted by DOE and NARUC in the context of the interplay between maintain healthy salmon runs and utility operations in the Pacific Northwest. Join the Guilty Environmentalist for a session of SimSalmon 2000, from California Energy Markets newsletter, circa 1999.

February 2014

Second Phase of Yosemite Slough cleanup about to begin in early 2014.

At one time, San Francisco had four major creeks coursing through its neighborhoods. But progress and development led to forcing those streams underground or diverting them from their natural paths. One such stream, Yosemite Creek, runs through the Excelsior and Portola districts via underground concrete culverts until it reaches San Francisco Bay, just north of Candlestick Park. For the past seven or so years, there's been an effort to clean up the place where Yosemite Creek sees light of day, as part of the rehabilitation of the Hunters Point Shipyard in the Bayview district. This August 16, 2007, story from Land Letter was one of a series of articles I did documenting the challenges of environmental restoration around the SF Bay.

January 2014

Avian Mortality Continues to be a Problem at Altamont Pass

The issue of avian mortality caused by wind turbines and power lines has been a controversial topic here in California ever since the first wind farms were established at Altamont Pass, about 50 miles east of San Francisco. Previous surveys by bird groups estimated that over 1,500 birds are killed each year, including dozens of raptors (Golden Eagles, Red-Tailed Hawks and others), but new surveys claim the number might be double that, despite decades of actions taken by wind developers to reduce the risks.

Currently, about 4,000 vintage turbines from the 1970-80s are being decommissioned, to be replaced with newer, more efficient, and perhaps less threatening designs.

Back in 2007, I revisited Altamont Pass for this Land Letter story about curtailed wind operations.

I guess this will be a continuing story as long as the wind blows over the pass.

December 2013

Rim Fire contained, but debate over restoration rages on

Earlier this year, an out-of-control campfire wreaked destruction in and around Yosemite National Park, burning through tens of thousands of acres of trees and brush. The smell and char, along with thousands of dead trees, does a perennial dispute between forest preservationists and those who advocate for salvaging the timber for commercial uses and for future fire prevention.

These articles from E&E's Land Letter harken back to the record-fire years of 2006 and 2007, when hundreds of wildfires caused similar destruction throughout the West, and similar controversies over whether forests are better left to restore naturally, or be pushed along by human activities.

Still no final answers are to be found amid the stumps.

Forest Service says thinning limited Tahoe-area fire (August 9, 2007)

After blazes are out, restoration efforts continue (November 16, 2006)

November/December 1993

Sometimes when rummaging through old files or boxes in the garage, I come across something that still carries the smudge and smell of smoke -- 20 years after a fire devastated our home and office in late November 1993.

For the next six months -- cold, wet months at that -- spouse and pets and I struggled through on a daily basis. We had no where else to go, and we lived with a burned out shell of a first floor, a windowless top floor, and a lack of heat. The California Energy Markets newsletter carried on as before, but in a decentralized way that has since become common for journalism, with a virtual office and telecommuting staffers.

We were (and felt like pioneers).

Here are two pieces from CEM recounting the fire and aftermath. One a Bottom Lines column written immediately after the blaze, and the other a more satiric look at the travails I felt as a Guilty Environmentalist who was wasting energy every day just to keep on keeping on. After the windows were replaced, the house restored and the sun came out, I endorsed a life lesson I still keep to this day: Be Thankful Every Day.

Happy Holidays, and keep warm.

November 1963

"Sometimes I wonder just what might have been,

if the bullets missed the Kennedys.

And the Peace Train of the 60s,

rolled across the New Frontier

to a Great Society.

Sometimes I wonder why we broke up on that Day in History...."

Not journalism, but social commentary in song.

Click here for The Nonce: "Sometimes I Wonder"

November 2013

World's Largest Solar PV Project Now Operational

The former ARCO Solar demonstration project on the Carrizo Plain, Off Power Road

This month, the 250 MW California Valley Ranch solar photovoltaic project reached full commercial operations. Located on the Carrizo Plain, just off Highway 58, this area has long been targeted as a prime solar energy development site, in part because of good solar induction characteristics and in part because of its prime spot along the high-voltage transmission corridor between the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant and the Midway/Sunset transmission hub near Bakersfield. About 20 years ago, I travelled this route for the Power Road project, just as ARCO Solar was dismantling its experimental flat panel solar project at the site.

Finally, the Carrizo Plain is again living up to its promise as a solar energy resource center.

You can read about Power Road here, and use this Google Map feature to see other spots along the way to California's diverse and high-tech energy future.

June 2013

Energy Crisis Redux

In another news item, the PowerEx energy marketing arm of B.C. Hydro has settled its long-standing dispute with the state of California over electricty overcharges during the Western Energy Crisis of 2000-2001. The deal will result in PowerEx giving up claim to a half billion dollars in energy sales, and returning about $250 million that it took under what were determined to be unfair businss practices. That's about $750 million out of some $9 billion that evaporated during the crisis.

Here's a story from California Current in 2010 that was the last time I had checked in on the refunds/litigation resulting from the Crisis:

Crisis Dust Still Settling 10 Years Later Nov. 29, 2010.

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