What’s Current? Issue #7 – CA Water Plan ’57, Climate Action Plans ’23, Hydrogen Power, Decentralize Cities

Welcome back for another edition of water and energy facts and observations. This week, we lead off by looking back, offering a link to the document that spawned the most remarkable system of interbasin water engineering in the history of the world. We’ve been living on the returns from that investment for the last 60 years. At first it delivered abundance, but as California’s population teeters around 40 million, it’s time to think big again. For water and for energy, a state as wealthy and innovative as California should be setting an example to the world — not of how to ration resources, but how to achieve sustainable abundance.

The 1957 California Water Plan Part One, Part Two

For a revealing jaunt 66 years back in time, have a look at the original California water plan. To summarize: For $11.8 billion, they planned to build a system of dams and reservoirs, aqueducts and pumping stations, sufficient to divert, store and deliver 50 million acre feet per year to farms and cities. That is an inspiring quantity because it represents a 25 percent increase over what we actually deliver today, and were that higher goal to be achieved, California could preserve its agriculture and expand its cities without rationing. The cost in today’s dollars? About $120 billion. Today, we might find another 10 MAF/year via more enlightened engineering marvels such as off-stream reservoirs, runoff harvesting, wastewater recycling and desalination, but we can do it. Back in 1957, $11.8 billion was 6X the general fund. Today, $120 billion is less than half the general fund. We have the money. We just need the will.

A 2023 “Climate Action Plan.”

Here’s where money for infrastructure ends up, as less actually gets built. Compare this voluminous document to the 1957 Water Plan. Instead of constituting an explicit planning document, applicable to the entire state, it is a draft “roadmap” for Bakersfield, a city of 420,000. If this plan is eventually adopted, it would join with the many permutations of CEQA and countless other state and regional laws and regulations that go too far and cost too much. A distinction should be made when viewing “climate action plans” between recommendations for adaptation and mitigation mandates. It is common sense to build adaptive resiliency into infrastructure. But “carbon accounting” designed to “mitigate” is a brand new genre, riven with subjectivity and conducive to manipulation. Instead of spending millions (okay, billions) on creative accounting, why not just adapt?

America’s Future Cities – A Case for Decentralization

Here’s a favorite fact: If ten million people moved to California, moving into homes on quarter-acre lots, four people per home, with an equal amount of space allocated for roads, schools, parks, and retail and commercial areas, it would only use up 2,000 square miles. California’s total urban footprint is only 8,000 square miles in a state 163,000 square miles in size. If we had water infrastructure sufficient to deliver 50 MAF/year instead of the current 40, there’d be more than enough water. Families prefer single-family detached homes. We need to create these beautiful new cities. We need a new way of thinking that embraces and nurtures the aspirations of working families. That is the proper obligation of government.

California needs every transportation option to meet climate goals – including hydrogen

The author gets one thing emphatically correct in this brief guest op-ed for Cal Matters. We sure do need every transportation option. But the absolutist prohibition on anything that emits CO2 is preventing terrific innovation from happening here. Why not natural gas/battery hybrids? Why not advanced hybrids running on blends that incorporate some percentage of carbon neutral combustible fuel? Hydrogen math is not terribly efficient: Electrolysis loses 30 percent turning electricity into hydrogen. An on-board fuel cell loses another 30 percent turning hydrogen back into electricity. That’s 50 percent. A battery’s charge/discharge efficiency? 90 percent.

Adding hydrogen energy to California gas systems is not worth the risk

Not to pile onto hydrogen too much, because all-of-the-above approaches to achieving energy and water abundance are appropriate in this era of rapid innovation and transition, and if anyone can do it, Californians can. But distributing hydrogen is yet another pitfall of this fuel because of its extremely low energy density. Hydrogen, the lightest substance in the universe, burns clean. But its energy per unit of volume is so low that to store practical amounts requires vessels capable of handling 5,000 PSI (or more). For comparison, natural gas only requires storage at 500 PSI (or less). Hydrogen also cannot be easily transported in existing pipelines, both because it requires a higher pressure and because, even when blended with natural gas, it is known to cause “embrittlement and cracking within the pipeline.” We should continue to explore the potential of this clean fuel. But it is not ready for prime time.