California Energy Commission

The year was 1974 when the Warren-Alquist Act was passed, creating a new California agency in the area of energy.  Up until this point, the planning, siting, and construction of electric power plants was handled by multiple California agencies and the utilities.  By January, 1975, the new governor (son of a former one) had served for four years as the California’s Secretary of State.  As governor, he eschewed the quarters of his predecessor and famously flopped each night on a mattress on his apartment floor in downtown , traveling in a powder blue, Plymouth 4-door sedan.  His name was Edmund G. Brown Jr, and was called Jerry.  The words ascetic and academic were used to describe his personal journey to this point.  He applauded the work of Eugene Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.  The press and public did not appreciate what seemed to suggest limits for the future.  Later monikers for the state’s new chief executive were less kind.

At the time, California’s electricity consumption was seemingly locked in a growth rate of just over 7% per year—much the same as in some other parts of the nation.  Things were humming, and although the Arab Oil Embargo was still fresh in the minds of U.S. citizens, that 7% growth rate required a necessary doubling of electricity to be available, every 10 years.  The Rand Corporation (1970) had produced a study saying that California would need to site at least 20 seaside nuclear power plants along the California coast, spaced about 40 miles apart.  It didn’t seem to matter to Rand that PG&E’s Diablo Canyon’s largest parts were laid in place in 1967 (for a plant that didn’t generate with both units until 1986)—nukes were seen as the way to go.  This was the energy business, and it was most often focused on the generation of electricity to support a growing state

The California Energy Commission (CEC) became the single agency for prediction of energy needs, coordination of capacity with the electric utilities, and the siting and permitting of power plant construction.  But it also became an agency that was charged with rolling out more of Governor Brown’s smaller is more beautiful thinking.  The well-known energy advisor S. David Freeman explained later (in 1991) that he’d switched from the term conservation to energy efficiency because the former was more often felt by the public as requiring “freezing in the dark,” as Ronald Reagan had once proclaimed.

CA's Rosenfeld Effect (CEC & SJ Mercury News)

Energy efficiency did become an increased focus of the CEC.  Dramatic changes were made in how buildings approached energy use and how well electric appliances performed.  These standards became adopted in other states and soon, the California appliance standards (refrigerators in particular) became the norm across the U.S.  Cost savings to metered customers have been estimated in the $80 billion dollar range since the adoption of Title-24’s standards.  The avoided costs of Rand Corporation’s projected generating plants are significant, as well.  California’s policy choice to break with the past in the mid-1970s has been a record-setting one, and serves as an important historical back drop to its continued policies that fight against climate change.