EDITOR'S NOTE: This op-Ed originally appeared last week in The San Francisco Chronicle and the Huffington Post.
The California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century put a glitter into the eyes of the most enterprising of Americans — leading more than 300,000 to abandon farms, fur traps and shops to head west. Transcontinental railways soon connected America. Souls who never ventured more than a few miles from their birthplace leaped a continent. Enterprises arose to mine and process the gold in the earliest hours of the nation’s industrial revolution.
California today is throwing open new goldfields. The state has declared that it will capture half of its electricity from renewables by 2030, plucking nuggets of energy from streams of sunshine and breezes. To facilitate that, it will be building a vast lake of 1,300 megawatts of energy storage.
Those are the dimensions of the revolution to come. It is a noble revolution meant to inspire the citizens of the state, the nation that is watching — and the world — to embrace workable solutions to climate change.
Venerable utilities that have been around for a century have to pivot as dramatically as the Ohio farmer who 168 years ago grabbed a pickax and ventured to an unknown horizon lacking skills the new opportunities demanded.
Pacific Gas & Electric, Edison International, San Diego Gas & Electric, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and other utilities have to learn a whole new way to talk to their customers. They are accustomed to playing a somewhat paternalistic role atop a hugely complex, expensive machine that cranks out and delivers harnessed lightning to each and every home, business and industry across vast territories. Hold on, say a growing army of their customers, we want to capture sunlight and port it into our homes, we want to corral the winds and use them to cool our family rooms.
How will the huge grid need to be transformed to accommodate all this?
Will utilities, long adept at raising vast financial resources, be called upon to underwrite the transformation ahead? What risks will they face — and how will they mobilize to counter them? How will they be compensated?
Given their monopoly status, many of the rules that govern them are crafted by state and federal regulators who — like electric companies — have not been accustomed to fast-paced, dynamic change.
Those policymakers have to now worry about the Islamic State and military hackers from China to Iran who want to exploit vulnerabilities in the power network to wreak vast havoc from afar. Can the coming power grid be engineered to become less — not more — vulnerable to 21st century cyberwars?
From Silicon Valley to innovation hubs across the land, the emerging Internet of Things is vastly multiplying our intelligence about human endeavors. Thought leader Jeremy Rifkin forecasts that by 2030 we will have 100 trillion sensors “connecting every type of human contrivance.” Granular, embedded intelligence about how we create and use electrons of energy for our comfort and enlightenment will be at the core of the onrushing energy revolution.
Just as Californians of yore made their way to beckoning goldfields by wagon train and paddle steamers, you, today’s energy consumer, will be arriving at an electric energy revolution with biases and habits that decades from now — from some as yet unimaginable vantage point — will seem unbelievably primitive.