Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?
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(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

In late March, Deepak Chopra, the best-selling New Age phenomenon, alighted in Santa Barbara, California, for an appearance at the city’s largest venue, the Arlington Theater.

Chopra, who tosses out jaw-droppers like “your karma is recorded in your genes,” is a tempting target for skeptics and scientists. That said, he’s an endocrinologist, the former chief of staff at New England Memorial Hospital, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Business School—and the author of dozens of top sellers on meditation, health, and the human genome. So it was hardly a surprise that he just about filled the august theater to recruit for his new crusade, the California Moonshot: a grand plan to take the Golden State to 100 percent renewable energy.

Not long ago, Chopra’s worries about climate change led to a meditation upon his Rolodex—an archive that may be as vast as the Upanishads. He arranged the introductions of several power-hitter entrepreneur friends—all bonded by an insistent obsession to save the planet.

The “showrunner” (as they say in Hollywood), and Chopra’s collaborator in chief in the Moonshot venture, is his friend of more than 20 years, attorney Rinaldo Brutoco, who also serves as president of the Chopra Foundation. An irrepressible showman armed with a flashbulb smile and a broad waist, Brutoco runs the Santa Barbara-based World Business Academy, which boasts about 100 high-powered fellows, including Chopra. “The academy is a think tank and a world networking organization,” explains Brutoco, “that brings together all of the scientific expertise in different disciplines, synthesizes it, and then brings in the attorneys and the economists to translate that into PUC [Public Utilities Commission] language.”

Brutoco concedes he's not the first to attempt scaling the energy Everest: Changing the history of how the utility and oil and gas companies produce and deliver energy is no easy feat.

Named for JFK’s get-a-man-to-the-moon mission, the Moonshot, says Brutoco, proposes a total decarbonization of the state by replacing all fossil fuels with renewables. That would include wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean thermal—and what they see as a coming hydrogen economy. Moreover, this coup de grace to fossil fuels, says Brutoco, would get done by 2025.

That’s a tall order. And a tight deadline. Last year, California’s 38 million people got 60 percent of their energy generated in state for homes and businesses from natural gas; 20 percent from wind, solar, and other renewables; 10 percent from nonrenewable hydroelectric; nine percent from nuclear; and less than one percent from coal. But Brutoco, a man of indefatigable optimism, is undeterred.

Earlier this summer, I attended a lunch hosted by Brutoco and about a dozen academy staffers and members at El Encanto, a high-end eatery and hotel squirrelled away in the bucolic foothills above Santa Barbara. (Brutoco, who sits on the board of Men’s Wearhouse, bankrolls the World Business Academy out of his own pocket.) The Canadian-born Brutoco, who sat at the center of a long table, weighed in: “The first leverage point is Santa Barbara, and from there, the state of California,” he began. “From there, the United States, and from there—the world.” A man never faulted for understatement, Brutoco then vaulted over the Pacific. “And it may be that we can even leapfrog the United States, frankly, and leverage California and go straight to China,” he said. (Think of Brutoco as part Tony Robbins, part Buckminster Fuller, with a splash of Werner Erhard.)

California itself has committed to using 33 percent renewable power sources by 2020—a goal it is currently on track to surpass. Which has motivated energy wonks to map out ways to go beyond: Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson published his own proposal last August to get California off fossil fuels by 2050 (and 80 to 85 percent off by 2030), in the journal Energy. The Moonshot will, its organizers say, lay out a blueprint to accelerate the use of renewable energy sources and restructure the energy grid, in part with the installation of local hydrogen-fuel-cell power plants for power storage and delivery.

A hydrogen-powered economy has long been considered an unattainable Holy Grail by some energy experts, because even though the only byproduct of hydrogen fuel is water, finding a way to produce hydrogen cleanly and economically has been elusive.

But Matt Renner, the academy’s executive director, parses the plan: At first, natural gas would be used to make hydrogen, but then the projected increase in renewables would eventually power its creation. The academy is banking that growing investments in hydrogen—the 100 stations for fuel-cell cars that are on track to be built in California, the installation of hydrogen-fuel-cell power stations in Seoul, South Korea—will dramatically change the playing field. “Hydrogen will be available at a cost comparable to natural gas,” Renner predicts.

Certainly, the Moonshot looks a lot like California dreaming. Then again, there is California Governor Jerry Brown’s mandate for renewables. Moreover, he has reconfigured the Public Utilities Commission, the uber-governmental organ that calls the shots for the state, with new appointees all keen on innovation and renewable fuels. Brutoco's World Business Academy holds what is called intervener status with the commission, which allows it to submit proposals (and to bill for its efforts). The academy expects it will be submitting its formal Moonshot proposal early in 2015.

Brutoco argues: “We have sitting in California now a [Democratic] supermajority in both houses of the legislature, and we have a Democratic governor, and a progressive agenda ... Brown has committed $200 million [toward] the hydrogen infrastructure.”

At Brutoco’s Spanish-style home, Chopra, an expert of sorts in divine recalibrations, whistled appreciatively. “You would never find all this anywhere, anytime before.”

BRUTOCO CONCEDES HE'S NOT the first to attempt scaling the energy Everest of California: Changing the long history of how the utility and oil and gas companies produce and deliver energy to Californians is no easy feat. “I don’t underestimate for a minute the fossil fuel industry,” he says. “The oil companies have this enormous, Goliath-like power. But they’re also like the Maginot Line. They are so pointed in one direction that if we can end-run them, we can win.” He adds, “It’s not a technological barrier. It’s a barrier of understanding the economics, and of political will.” (Stanford's Jacobson counters that “2025 is technically possible but unlikely for political and social reasons.”) In June, Brutoco addressed about 100 academy members in downtown Santa Barbara. Prior to Chopra’s appearance, the academy’s monthly meetings were held in Brutoco’s home in the foothills. Post-Chopra, it required a larger venue and has moved to the JadeNow Gallery, a large, sunny space featuring New Age art. A duo was onstage singing protest songs while folks grazed on a generous spread of hors d’oeuvres and drinks.

After a few tunes, Brutoco took the stage and regaled the crowd with tales from a VIP event he’d recently attended in London at the invitation of Lady Rothschild. He chatted about breaking bread and schmoozing with Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, Prince Charles, Bill Clinton, and economist Lawrence Summers. (While Brutoco thinks big, he doesn’t necessarily build from the ground up. When I spoke with Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal—whose district includes Montecito, the richest ’burb in the county—he asked, “How come I never heard of these guys?”) Brutoco went on to speak about other academy campaigns, such as its work to try to shutter Diablo Canyon, a nuclear reactor site about 100 miles north of Santa Barbara, which straddles multiple earthquake faults. He then invited everyone to have another drink.

Attendees were also reminded that on every seat was an article to take home. Titled “Exit From a Quagmire,” it is Brutoco’s blueprint for resolving the meltdown in Iraq.

Possibly another moonshot.

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