On May 12, 2022, the California Coastal Commission voted 12-0 to reject a proposal to build a desalination plant in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles. The plant would have been privately funded and would have yielded a drought-proof 55,000-acre-feet of fresh water every year. Poseidon Water, the company whose application had been denied, spent two decades and over $100 million submitting paperwork to multiple federal, state, regional, and local agencies—including engineering blueprints that had to be revised and resubmitted repeatedly to comply with regulations that were not only continuously changing, but in many cases were in conflict with each other.
This story isn’t an outlier. Even California Governor Gavin Newsom has complained about the regulatory environment in the Golden State. Newsom claimed during a press conference last month at a massive solar farm in the Central Valley that the state is ready to spend $180 billion on infrastructure over the next decade. But he asked, “Are we going to screw it up by being consumed by paralysis and process?”
Less than a week later, California’s state legislature answered Newsom’s question, killing in committee his proposed package of legislation that would have streamlined the environmental regulations now stopping big infrastructure projects.
The impact of these regulations is staggering. To use desalination as an example, the plant California’s coastal commission killed a year ago would have cost an estimated $1 billion to construct. This equates to a capital cost of $18,000 per acre-feet of yearly freshwater output. For comparison, the Sorek I desalination plant, located on the coast a few miles south of Tel Aviv in Israel, was built at a capital cost of $2,200 per acre-feet of annual freshwater output. It costs eight times as much to build a desalination plant in California as it does in Israel.
Why would any civil engineering contractor or major construction company do business in California? No wonder the state’s infrastructure is inadequate. No wonder everything costs so much.
The Distortion and Misuse of Infrastructure
The word “infrastructure” has been discredited in recent years. Leftist politicians, the same ones who claim speech is violence, and violence is speech, have decided “infrastructure” now includes everything from social programs and social justice to woke curricula in public schools.
But the less exploited and more precise definition of infrastructure is in reference to the physical assets constituting the essential foundation of any civilization: starting with roads, reservoirs, and power plants. The word infrastructure screams “wonk,” and just the sound of it sends most people scurrying for more scintillating political pastures.
Our disinclination to engage with what may already be a tedious topic because it lacks the sex appeal and urgency of, say, debating the pros and cons of encouraging third graders to explore their gender identities, has consequences. It means that debate regarding the future of infrastructure, and hence the fate of our civilization, is denied the centrality required to stimulate an optimal outcome.
By the time a critical mass of politicians and voters understand that “infrastructure,” properly defined as utilities that keep us alive, requires spending be prioritized so the most efficiently achieved, abundant, and affordable transportation, water, and energy assets can be realized, the decisions may have already been made. Long-term infrastructure investments will be committed (or not committed where they’re most needed). This is already happening.
Instead of building next-generation infrastructure that is practical and cost-effective so we can make a civilizational leap up to a higher level of prosperity and economic independence, we risk finding ourselves living in an economy defined by rationing and scarcity. Because we allowed special interests to allocate an obscene percentage of our national wealth to building infrastructure that was impractical and punitively expensive we are finding ourselves going without. And again, this is already happening.
That’s the choice we face. That’s the question we should ask every time we hear the word “infrastructure.” Are you bored yet?
Newsom, to his credit, offered California’s state legislature a package of reform bills focused on physical assets. The legislation he promoted would have reformed environmental regulations that make construction of physical infrastructure prohibitively expensive and would have opened up new avenues of public funding to get them built. But Newsom’s package, for the most part, was not focused on practical or cost-effective infrastructure solutions. It would have streamlined the process and stimulated the funding for projects that cannot possibly deliver affordable and abundant transportation, water, or energy.
California’s “bullet train” boondoggle is a prime example of how infrastructure dollars are misused and wasted. Consuming billions of dollars, millions of tons of concrete, and thousands of tons of steel, the rail project is a testament to special interest corruption. Against a host of more practical alternatives, it cannot withstand an objective cost-benefit analysis based on any honest set of economic or environmental criteria.
California’s proposed Delta tunnel, a scheme to drain water from northern rivers through an underground tunnel to feed southbound aqueducts, is a similar disaster waiting to happen. At an estimated cost of just over $20 billion, this project ignores a host of more practical alternatives. But perhaps the most misguided of all California’s ambitious infrastructure schemes are the proposed offshore wind turbines.
California’s Prodigiously Wasteful Wind Farms
In December, the federal government leased 583 square miles of deep ocean waters off the coast of California for offshore wind farms. Five companies paid a total of $757 million for the right to develop these holdings. Everything about this scheme screams waste and fraud. It is difficult to imagine an energy project more impractical, more costly, more fraught with potential for disaster, or more certain to wreak environmental havoc.
A rare example of journalistic honesty can be found in the MIT Technology Review’s assessment of the Golden State’s offshore wind ambitions. Published in December, the article provides useful quantitative data, reporting that when fully built out, these wind farms would deliver 4.5 gigawatts of “clean” electricity to the California grid. That may sound like a lot of electricity. It isn’t.
For starters, 4.5 gigawatts of output is only guaranteed when the wind is blowing. Even offshore, the average output of these turbines will only be around 40 percent of their full capacity, which means if you consider the contribution of these wind farms to baseload power requirements, they will only be delivering 1.8 gigawatts. That represents barely 5 percent of California’s current electricity consumption.
If California “decarbonizes” and goes all-electric, which the state legislature remains absolutely committed to achieving, offshore wind would represent, at best, 2 percent of the electricity the state is going to need to generate. Two percent.
But what is it going to take to get the proposed 1.8 gigawatts from offshore wind energy?
As revealed in the MIT Technology Review’s analysis, the turbines will be anchored over 20 miles offshore in waters more than 4,000 feet deep. No offshore wind farm anywhere on Earth, using floating turbines, has come anywhere close to the scale of what Californians are contemplating. The biggest so far, a wind farm off the coast of Scotland, provides only 50 megawatts (in capacity, not yield). What is planned for the waters of Central and Northern California is 90 times larger. How do they propose to do this?
Getting serious megawatts out of wind turbines requires large turbines. Very large turbines. Some of the biggest in the world can now produce 10 megawatts of output from a single turbine. Those machines are 1,000 feet tall, which is nearly four times higher than the Statue of Liberty, including its base. These towering monstrosities are intended to float in the Pacific Ocean, remaining upright through storms, tsunamis, and earthquakes, remaining in a fixed position via cables stretching from the bottom of the floating tower to anchors in the seabed over 4,000 feet underwater.
What could possibly go wrong?
Along with the natural disruptions of storms, rogue waves, and earthquakes, what about the impact of these turbines on birds, whales, other avian and aquatic life, or on planes, boats, and ships? But the problems of building just one of these turbines are magnified by what should be simple and compelling math: To generate 1.8 net gigawatts—a mere 2 percent of the electricity California’s legislature aspires to generate to achieve their “net zero” objectives—it will be necessary to build and float 450 of these 10-megawatt turbines. Imagine the logistics!
How many ships would this take? How many submarines and divers? How many port facilities? How many new homes for the construction workers? What about the undersea power cables? What about the storage batteries needed to buffer 4.5 gigawatts of on-again, off-again electricity? What about the ongoing maintenance? What about the raw materials needed to build all these leviathans? What about the billions upon billions of dollars that will flow into the pockets of the special interests behind this disaster of a project, paid by taxpayers and ratepayers?
The Uplifting Potential of Practical Infrastructure Choices
It’s understandable that the people running a state as wealthy as California, with a culture of pioneering innovation going back nearly two centuries, would be inspired to set an example to the world. This negates the argument that even if Californians achieve “net zero” emissions of carbon dioxide, it won’t make a bit of difference.
California’s goal, which its elected officials have exported to Washington, D.C., is to inspire the whole world to achieve “net zero.” If foreign nations aren’t willing to do this voluntarily, then California is happy to have our government somehow force them into compliance.
This entire strategy is flawed on many levels. To begin with, honest carbon accounting has to recognize the embodied energy and resource cost of renewables, and when this is done, most renewable energy solutions are revealed to have an emissions cost in rough parity with the most efficient fossil fuel-based energy solutions.
Then there is the growing awareness that other environmental priorities—such as preserving wilderness and protecting wildlife from biofuel plantations, solar farms, wind farms, and dramatically expanded mining operations—are compromised by renewables development at a cost to the environment that may well exceed the alleged, eventual cost of carbon emissions. And to recite a growing heresy, well supported by scientific evidence, it may be that most of the measured increase in atmospheric CO2 has come from natural sources such as volcanoes, and in any case, the result of more atmospheric CO2 may actually do more good than harm.
But the biggest flaw in California’s net zero strategy is that other nations aren’t going to follow this example. They aren’t willing to impoverish their populations in fealty to what they perceive to be a concocted, overblown, phony crisis designed to further Western hegemony over their sovereignty. For everyone on Earth to consume half as much energy per capita as Americans do, global energy production needs to double. Because energy is the foundation of prosperity, this needs to happen fast, and it needs to be affordable.
For this reason, what Californians ought to be doing is applying their wealth to building state-of-the-art new energy infrastructure that is practical and cost-effective. For example, modern natural gas power plants employ combined cycle designs that harvest waste heat from the natural gas-fired turbine to produce steam to drive a second turbine. But new combined cycle designs replace the steam with helium, which harvests waste heat at much higher temperatures than steam can, which means less heat wasted to the atmosphere, greatly increasing efficiency. This advanced design can convert up to 80 percent of the embodied energy in natural gas fuel into electricity. For anyone who considers anthropogenic CO2 a threat, this technology is a realistic and significant step in the right direction. Why not set efficiency standards and upgrade the fleet, instead of trying to destroy the entire natural gas infrastructure in a state of 40 million people?
For that matter, why aren’t Californians at the forefront of both small modular and large next-generation nuclear reactor development? Why isn’t there a nuclear power plant in California that not only generates emissions-free gigawatts of electricity, but reprocesses and utilizes the waste to produce still more electricity, rendering the eventual waste stream far less hazardous and harvesting far more electricity from each unit of fuel input?
When it comes to transportation, why hasn’t California’s legislature made a priority of widening and upgrading its roads and freeways to accommodate high-speed, self-driving vehicles? And why on earth did California’s state legislature ban, starting in 2035, the sale of advanced hybrids? How can California’s policymakers possibly view an all-electric vehicle, requiring a half-ton or more of battery payload, plus a steel chassis to support all the extra weight, to be an exclusive option?
Why wouldn’t hybrid technologies, which use a battery one-tenth as heavy to harvest the energy otherwise wasted from braking and downhill momentum, be a permissible option? How can California’s lawmakers begin to predict what new advances may arise in hybrid technology, wherein the emissions from new combustible fuels are almost negligible? Why not just set mileage and fuel standards instead of banning anything that uses combustion?
These are questions that should be front and center in Sacramento instead of self-congratulatory, uninformed bloviating over the need to streamline permitting for offshore wind farms and high-speed rail. California—and America—can set an example to the world, but only if it is an example the world is willing to follow.