Wind, wood chips, the sun and garbage have replaced the atom as the symbols of the energy future in California, where Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. is gambling that what he calls "an energy bonanza" is just around the corner.
In this gamble with the economic well-being and lifestyle of 22 million Californians, there is no consensus, no mutual trust or understanding and little common ground.
Brown and his supporters see the turnaway from nuclear power epitomized by the legislature's rejection of the Sundesert nuclear power plant as prudent and overdue. The governor predicts an "energy glut" in California as the state develops geothermal steam and solar power resources and such exotic ideas as a "cogeneration" plant that would use refuse and garbage to make steam and electrictiy.
On the other side, many industry and public figures agree with the view expressed recently by California Attorney General Evelle J. Younger that unless Sundesert in built "the lights will go out in California in five to eight years."
They say that the prospect of coalfired power plants supported by Brown to help California reach the geothermal-solar age is a cruel illusion because stringent federal and state air pollution regulations will prevent such plants from being built. As it becomes evident that the state is running short of energy in the 1980s, they predict California will suffer an economic slowdown that could become a statewide depression.
The outcome of this energy gamble has enormous consequences for the nation. The utility industry is so large here and the energy demand so great that large-scale technological decisions influence the course of other states. On many environmental and energy issues, the decisions made in California have proved to be the wave of the future.
There are at least four reasons why consensus is lacking and the energy future uncertain.
The first is California's unpredictable but awesome population growth, which slackened dramtically in the early 1970s after two decades of steady increase but is now booming again.
The second is the suspicion of less developed western states, which increasingly view California as a hostle force determined to exploit the energy resources of the entire region.
The third reason is the still-potent environmental movement, which helped kill Sundesert and may also kill the plant. Enviromentalists here usually take the view that they are protecting the naturla asserts which brought them to California in the first place.
The fourth reason is used by most of Brown's critics to explain his actions. This is the governor's unconcealed interest in establishing a clear line of division between himself and President Carter on the nuclear issue as a condition to a possible presidential challenge in 1980.
Foes of Brown, such as former Democratic Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti, say that Brown's opposition to any nuclear development is based on his desire to carry a "pure antinuclear banner" and win the support of such environmental groups as the Clamshell Alliance in the New Hampshire presidential primary in 1980.
The presidential $100 million that has been spent on the abandoned Sundesert Plant can best be regarded as a downpayment on the New Hampshire primary that will never face an audit from the Federal Election Commission," says Alan Pasternak, the only Energy Commission member who favored the project.
What makes Brown's critics especially suspicious is the absolute certiutude with which the governor and his chief deputies express their belief that an energy glut is just around the corner.
"I don't personally think there's any chance at all of an energy shortage in the 1980s," says Tom Quinn, chairman of the state Air Resources Board. Quinn has been a tough and resolute enforcer of air antipollution standards, but he is now confidently predicting that coal plants can be built in the smogless Southern California desert without hurting air quality.
Brown's conduct in defeating Sundesert was in marked contrast his hands-off political behavior on other issues, such as the death penalty, where he has taken unpopular stands.
Brown let the death penalty bill become law without doing anything to stop the Legislature from overriding his veto. But he did everything he could to stop the Legislature from sending him, a bill permitting construction of Sundesert and raised alternatives ranging from Mexican-produced electricity to California coal plants in his successful effort to kill the bill.
It is, of course, possible that Brown may be right about the energy future of California. What makes it impossible for outside even expert ones, to make a reasonably sure analysis is the uncertainty of such huge prospective developments as the Intermountain Power Project (IPP), a major coal plant which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power wants to build in the Utah Salt Wash.
The IPP project is included by the California Energy Commission in its assessment of energy sources that will enable the state to enjoy a nonuclear future. But no site has been chosen for the project and there appears to be mounting opposition in Utah to allowing Los Angeles to "export its pollution" at the expense of a state which retains most of its environmental amentities.
The uncertainty of the Utah project illustrates the difficulty in trying to predict California's energy future with any precision. In a state with one-tenth the nation's population, even small changes in the difficult equations of growth, water supply and imports can make huge differences in the amount of energy to be available.
"We just don't have anything to go by in the way of reliable forecasts," says Tim Davis, senior consultant ot the state Senate Energy Committee. "You listen to all sides, and the only thing you're sure of is that we need some new capacity by the 1980s."
Such uncertainty does not disturb the confident demeanor of the affable, energetic Quinn, who says the only risk being taken is a Political one by Brown. Quinn, who managed Brown's campaign for governor in 1974 and is his political confident now, portrays Brown as a courageous idealist who is bucking the 2-to-1 support for nuclear power demonstrated in a state ballot initiative two years ago.
"The antinuclear stand is against the popular grain," says Quinn. "This is a potentially risky stand for Jerry."
Actually, the Brown administration has tried to reduce political risk in this year's reelection campaign with its backing to the huge coal plant in the Mohave desert.
California never has used coal as a power source before, and coal plants in other states would not meet the state's stringent clean air requirements. But the administration's support for coal presumably will make it difficult for Republicans in the fall campaign to portray Brown as a governor who is willing to let the lights go out in California.
"While Brown babbles on about solar energy and woodchip, there are carloads of coal in our future," said one utilities executive recently at a private meeting to discuss industry strategy after Sundesert.
The turn to coal potentially puts the pressure on Quinn, head of the powerful Air Resources Board. According to some reports, Quinn turned down an offer to manage Brown's campaign a second time because he would have to resign his board chairmanship and didn't want to risk being reconfirmed by the state Senate.
Certainly, if business and industry leaders had their way Quinn's conformation would be in trouble. Under Quinn's leadership the Air Resources Board has limited industrial expansion in Los Angeles harbor, enforced the stiffest automobile pollution emission controls in the nation and blocked development of a Standard Oil of Ohio terminal and pipeline that would originate in Long Beach and transport Alaskan oul to the oul-short Midwest.
But with the confidence that has characterized his approach, Quinn believes that California can build "by far the cleanest coal plant in the nation" and meet clean air standards. Besides, says Quinn, the coal plant is simply "an insurance policy" that may not be needed.
He adds, in words similar to those used by Brown, that California is used by Brown, that California is "really going to be in the driver's seat" as alternative energy sources are developed in the 1980s.
The alternative energy, in its myraid forms, is very much on the minds of the utility industry these days.
Recently, at a stockholders' meeting of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a shareholder said that his neighbor was afraid radiation would come out of the light socket if nuclear power came into widespread use.
Company President John F. Bonner replied that the neighbor shouldn't be worried about radiation. He should be concerned, Bonner said with a smile, that the utility was experimenting with cow manure as a power source.