Almost as soon as Edwin Drake put the first commercial oil well into production in Pennsylvania in 1859, the end of cheap oil was predicted. In 1949, Marion King Hubbert predicted that the world’s petroleum production would rise to a peak and then just as quickly decline. While aggressive worldwide exploration and development of oil might have delayed the timing, other pressures to the future of oil are coming to the forefront.

The California Air Resources Board, in its Vision for 2012-2050 report, predicts a wholesale transition from fossil fuels by 2050. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is on record saying that nitrogen oxide emissions will have to be reduced by more than 90 percent to meet the legal requirements of the Clean Air Act. Natural gas, biofuels and synthetic fuels – all of them have greenhouse gas- and smog-forming emissions that eliminate them from meeting those goals. The only viable alternative is electric motors. 

Assuming these views of an electric future come to pass, how will future power needs be met? We’re not just looking at some nominal rate of growth – we’re on the verge of a radical transition toward electrification.

Just think about how many devices you now plug in versus just a few years ago. For goods movement, the joint ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach estimate their power needs will quadruple by 2020 just to accommodate current regulatory requirements and planned development.

Meeting those future demands is not just a matter of building more power plants.

Sources of electricity must meet the dual mandates of supplying 33 percent of that electricity from renewable sources, like wind and solar, while reducing greenhouse gas emission to the level of 1990 by 2020. No doubt that the needs will be met. If it is one thing utilities are really good at, it is making sure that the service is provided to the end user. The one aspect that cannot be predicted is cost.

No known costs

There is also uncertainty about the technologies that will be used to meet these goals. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach achieved the goals of their Clean Truck Program, in which all trucks have been replaced or upgraded to meet 2007 emission standards or better. The estimated cost of this program is more than $1 billion. Now this same truck fleet is being told that it isn’t good enough, and that it now needs to transition to zero-emission technology. Unfortunately for the trucking industry, there is no clear technology, no clear consensus and absolutely no known costs.

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