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Saturday, Oct. 14, 2006 | Scott Anders, 37, is director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at the University of San Diego School of Law. EPIC, as it is called, is a policy research center that’s digging into topics like solar and other renewable energy. Anders, a Pennsylvania native, is an expert on California’s solar prospects. He’s been with EPIC since the program began in 2005. He lives in Lakeside with his wife, Abby, and his children. His daughter, Kaya, is 5 years old, his son, Max, is 3.

We sat down to talk with Anders – a relatively neutral observer of the local energy industry – about the prospects of solar energy, why people love to hate their local utility and a formative stint in Mali with the Peace Corps.

Sempra and SDG&E have their fair share of very vocal critics. … Is that typical of a utility? What do you attribute that to?

That’s a good question. I think that there’s going to be some level of vocal opposition against just about any large company. SDG&E is I think predictably vulnerable, because they’re the power supplier.

Everybody gets a bill from them. Not everybody gets a bill from Qualcomm, from lots of other high-profile companies. … So I think there’s going to be some level of opposition. Historically, there’s been this utility versus consumer clash over time. And it’s part of the system. The Public Utilities Commission has a process for interveners to get into the process and they can actually get paid a portion of their costs to do it – so it’s a system that’s open to having groups that represent consumers come in and do that. The other thing, to be honest, since I’ve come to San Diego and worked in the energy industry, one of the mysteries to me is why people love to hate their utility. And it’s not just SDG&E.

A lot of people have issues with their utility. I don’t know why it is. Generally speaking, our power rarely goes out. Our costs are maybe higher than in other parts of the country. But if you compare it to other services, it’s pretty good. I can understand why Michael Shames (of the Utilities Consumer Action Network) or some consumer groups have gripes about SDG&E’s policies or SDG&E’s rates – because they’re representing a constituency. Kelly Fuller (of the Sierra Club), she’s representing the environmental community. I can understand that. What I can’t understand is why sometimes the general populace loves to hate the utility. I generally think SDG&E in terms of keeping the lights on – and most utilities these days – is doing a pretty good job.

It’s interesting, and it plays into a broader discussion about solar energy. Is solar’s time here? Does the Million Solar Roofs project go far enough? We get an infinitesimal amount of power from solar. It seems like a no-brainer. It’s sunny here.

The bottom line is cost. If you take away the subsidies, it’s too expensive. Has its time come? I think the jury’s still out on that one, too.

The Million Solar Roofs, or the California Solar Initiative as it’s now called, is pledging around $3 billion in subsidies. It’s predicated on declining rebates, which will combine with declining prices at the end – when you don’t need incentives. It’ll be a fully functioning market … and just perpetuate from there. If you look at the potential effect of that on the installation of solar in San Diego, it’s something around the order of 200 megawatts (less than a small power plant).

And that’s still going to be just a few percentages of the electricity we need. When you talk about solar, you have to put it in the proper perspective. Can we power all of San Diego with solar? Maybe someday. But in the near term, solar has a role to play – and it could play a very strategic role. … It shouldn’t be thought of us as a panacea. It should be thought of as one tool in the toolbox.

Can you compare our use of solar and other renewables to countries in Europe – and why we’re further behind?

Germany is putting in hundreds of megawatts a year (of solar). Last year, they put in about 500 megawatts of photovoltaics – in one year. We have in California something on the order of 150 megawatts.

Total.

Total. I think part of the reason they could be doing it is because they’re taking climate change seriously. They’ve signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, and they’re trying to reduce greenhouse emissions. And they’re going crazy with wind (power). There are just enormous amounts of wind going in in Europe, much higher than what we’re seeing. But, having said that, let’s not [ignore] the progress that we’re making.

We have renewable portfolio standards, and that was just accelerated. The new standard – 20 percent by 2010 – means that SDG&E has to provide 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2010. That’s going to take a lot of work to get to. … We may not have the megawatts of PV (photovoltaic) or wind that some European countries do, but the policy direction has been in that area. And a couple of other bills passed this year – the climate change bill and some interesting bills on the energy side – may change the marketplace. There’s a lot of money coming into renewable energy.

Let’s talk a little bit about AB32 (the new state climate change bill). Critics say it’s political window dressing. China’s got a coal-fired power plant opening a week, India’s got a growing economy – and here’s California taking what would be a step that could be cost-prohibitive for business. Then those who support it say someone’s got to take the first step. Is this just Schwarzenegger trying to go green before the November election? Or is there some tangible result?

I think it may be a little bit of both. Clearly, there’s some politics involved. We’re in an election year, there’s politics in everything he’s doing now.

There clearly is a risk that taking on these policies will have a dampening effect on the economy. But on the other hand, there is a lot of money flowing into clean technologies right now from venture capital firms. There’s a lot of entrepreneurial activity happening in that area. So the potential for next-generation industries to be created is there. It’s a real possibility. I’ve never believed in this dichotomy between protecting the environment and growing the economy. I think that’s a false dichotomy.

I heard an interview with someone yesterday who said that he thought outsourcing was good for the economy. He said it’s not good for the worker who gets laid off, but it’s good for the economy. If we start trimming our emissions and there are industries here and there that are going to suffer, we need to figure out a way to deal with that. But the overall effect likely would be positive.

It seems that the public perception of climate change has shifted. Perhaps when we look back on 2006, we’ll see it as the year that the light bulb clicked on.

I’ve been feeling that way the last couple of years. I agree with you. I think that there’s a level of consciousness. I worked in Washington, D.C. at a policy think tank. We worked on market-based policies to curb pollution. We were looking at use of tax policies. This was in 1997. We were looking at carbon taxes. At the time, I kind of felt like I was spitting into the wind. I was thinking to myself: Why am I even doing this? It’s crazy.

And now, I hear about carbon taxes all the time. And it’s not just from some wacko person. It’s from journalists, it’s from some noted academics, policymakers. … I think there are a lot of factors in there. Energy in particular has become a big issue, because of the Middle East, because of oil prices recently, because of Iraq. President Bush says we’re addicted to oil. Not that energy is the only thing linked to climate change. But I see them as two sides of the same coin. That coin will be one of the most pressing issues going forward this century. Energy and climate change will be an increasingly important issue.

What do you see as the first sign in your mind of the opinion shift? A lot of people point to Katrina, even if it’s completely unrelated. Do you go back before that?

I don’t know what the trigger is. We’re either in the tipping point here, or we’re in the range of the tipping point. It’s been an accumulation of science, it’s events like Katrina – regardless of whether there’s an actual connection. And frankly I think that Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” I was reading the book thinking it’s a good book, it’s interesting. But I kept feeling like we’re going to look back on this book and say: “He was right.”

I’ve got kids, and I don’t want to slide down the doom-and-gloom (path). I’m more optimistic, or at least cautiously optimistic, on our ability to overcome. But I’m not too excited about the potential of a world where taking my kid to see a glacier is a hard thing to do.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. There was a series on NPR this week about Africa … and it was really an interesting series on why Africa is not developing. It’s an interesting question – it’s personal for me because I lived there for a while, but it’s also interesting intellectually. You wonder why a place like Africa is not making it. And then you think about the effects of climate change – more erratic weather patterns, periods of droughts, periods of floods. If you’re an African farmer in Mali, and you have a five-year drought, your village is going to get wiped out. They’re (already) on the verge of life and death.

Do you often find that you’re able to apply that two-year experience in Mali, to apply it to the world in which you live now?

Yes. Yes. I joke – and I’ll probably never do it – that I’m going to write a book called “Everything I Learned About Life, I Learned in the Peace Corps.” You learn some very basic life lessons about your position in the world, and what’s poverty, and what’s life about, what’s important. … I think that it’s sort of trite and cliché thing to say, but one of the things I learned in the Peace Corps is that people are people are people.

I don’t care where you’re from, I don’t care how much money you have, I don’t care what color you are, I don’t care how big you are, how small you are. If you’re human, there is a thread that runs through humanity that’s palpable. I use a silly example. But I lived in a village and stayed with a host family. The mother would go off to market on Sundays. She would go off, walk eight miles each way to sell her corn. She’d come home with stuff. And the kids would run out, and open it up: What did you bring! What did you bring! It’s what my kids do when I come home. People have hopes, dreams, desires. People are people. That’s the thing I’ve learned.

– Interview by ROB DAVIS

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