If you are one of many of people who own an electric vehicle, or hope to one day soon, you may have heard that Tesla and other electric car owners can now sign up for a special program where PG&E installs a high-powered charger in your home. It charges your car faster, and you get the electricity for less money. But it costs almost a thousand dollars to get it.
Are PG&E and Tesla subsidizing the electricity for electric car owners? No. The fact is that the average consumer pays more for small amounts of electricity because of the delivery mechanism for it — single phase current — is less efficient than the mechanism used to delivery large amounts of electricity to industrial users. Three-phase electricity costs a fraction of what single phase does for the end user, but it has inherent drawbacks that make it inappropriate for the average household. Among them: safety concerns. A shock from a three-phase outlet can easily kill a person. And the equipment required to use it, from wires to fuses to outlets, must be much heavier duty and thus costs much more.
Owning an electric vehicle provides a financial justification to install three-phase electricity in a house.
Lakes and rivers provide around 40% of the water used in our state each year, depending on the weather. Like electricity, this water is provided by utility companies to consumers and businesses through a distribution system. And like electricity, pricing for water depends on how much is used. Storing water requires a tremendous investment, which is why the state and federal government control some of the largest reservoirs. Handling and delivering the water isn’t cheap either — maintaining miles and miles of canals or pipelines is very expensive. Look at San Francisco’s inability to pay for much needed repairs to some of its supply lines from water sources in the Sierra.
But getting the water the last mile or so into your house is also very expensive. Think of the network of pipes that must be installed and maintained in order to plumb a relatively small amount of water into thousands of individual houses. And all that water must be treated and tested to ensure that it is safe to drink.
When urbanites talk about agricultural water, the conversation almost always leads to subsidies. “Farmers get cheap, subsidized water from the government.” “They should be paying more, paying the same amount that homeowners pay on their bill every month.” “That would encourage them to conserve more water.”
Sure, some farmers get “subsidized” water, just like homeowners in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities that receive their water from government-owned reservoirs. The farmers usually pay the same amount for the water that, say, Los Angeles Municipal Water Department pays. That is because like large municipalities, farmers use lots of water.
Farmers are buying water in bulk, and get a volume discount.
Farms that use surface water cannot turn it on and off the way you can turn off a faucet. Water is ordered from the local water district a day or a week in advance, for a set amount of time. Imagine having to call your local water company 24 hours before you wanted to take a shower, or more importantly, 24 hours before you wanted to turn the shower off.
Surface water does not arrive on farms pressurized. While it usually comes in large volumes — 1000 gallons a minute or more — it cannot be run through sprinkler pipes or even drip hoses until it goes through a pump. The pump is owned and operated by the farmer, as is the plumbing that moves the water around their farm.
Like three-phase electricity, large volumes of water require large, heavy duty equipment — giant plumbing — to handle. Farmers make massive investments to be able to handle the volume of water needed to grow crops. Water conservation requires lots of additional expensive equipment.
On our small farm, we have over 4 miles of below-ground pipe, 10 miles of sprinkler pipe, and almost a hundred miles of drip hoses. The filter to remove algae and other material cost $15,000. This investment allows us to use about half as much water as farms without water conservation technology, but still will take dozens of years to pay for itself in water savings.
More than a decade ago, our state made energy conservation a top priority. The Public Utilities Commission forced utilities like PGE to provide incentives for energy consumers to reduce their consumption. To date, no such state mandate for incentives exist for water, although there are some limited federal programs. Agricultural water users pay for conservation technologies out of their own pockets. Many have done so, but many cannot afford to make the giant investment required. And federal, state and local tax agencies all consider most irrigation infrastructure to be capital improvements. So water conservation actually increases property taxes. Despite this disincentive, farmers across the state are using less water than they did 20 years ago.
Instead of blaming farmers for using too much water, our leaders should be trying to find more ways to help them use less.