December 13, 2022

Op-ed by Igor Tregub, a Ukraine native, member of the Elected Officials to Protect America Leadership Council, former Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board Member,and works and writes on renewable energy topics.

5 AM, February 24: I glanced in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot from sleep deprivation. Since waking up from a catnap two hours ago, I sat in bed with my laptop, anxiously worrying about family and friends, monitoring every reported movement of Putin’s troops. My heart jumps every time I hear the ping of a Facebook messenger alert.

My family fled the Soviet Union 32 years ago, with not much more than a few suitcases and the shirts on their backs – making the journey so that I would not suffer the persecution they did simply for being Jewish. My parents wanted me to give our family a fighting chance to participate in a democratic country, put down roots in fertile soil and to serve and welcome others into our beloved community. Because of them, I was able to immigrate to California and become a public servant here in Berkeley.  At the same time, my cousin Kostia, my childhood friend Ksenia, and many others with whom I grew up stayed behind in Ukraine and, over the subsequent three decades, built the country’s own fledgling democratic institutions. Part of my soul remains there.

That’s where it remained at 5 AM on February 24, when Kostia informed me that he fled to a bomb shelter with his family. I messaged him on Facebook: “Are you safe?”  I dreaded every moment of silence, fearing he might stop answering my Facebook messages and what this might signify. Finally, a ping: ‘for now.’  Shortly after, I received an email from Ksenia, and learned that a rocket had exploded above her home, falling a mere 100 meters away from her. She was fleeing our birthplace, Kyiv.

Nearly ten months later I am inured to the habit of waking up at 5 AM to check in with family and friends in-country. Every day I recoil from images of neighborhoods where I played as a youngster as they go up in flames and are reduced to rubble. Every day I shudder as another Russian-ordered drone attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure plunge entire cities into darkness and frigid sub-zero indoor temperatures. The emptiness and loss are hard to fathom, much less express in words, but is palpable as a deep sense of horror and shame that, for me, starts at 5 AM every day. It also guides my daily work to divest from life-destroying fossil fuels and instead invest in a democratic, renewable, albeit threatened, energy supply.

The situation in Ukraine has brought into sharp focus how the world’s continued fossil fuel dependency threatens sovereign democratic nations as well as the stability of the world’s climate. Our dependency on fossil fuels is funding Putin’s war to the tune of $285M from oil sales daily.  Dictators like Putin make it easier for oil and gas CEOs to price gouge Americans.

The California Energy Commission reported that oil companies increased gas prices in California by a record 84 cents just in September 2022 alone, with the average price of gasoline at the pump surging from $5.06 to $6.29, despite the price of oil decreasing from about $100 to $85 per barrel. Meanwhile, from July to September 2022, oil companies doing business in our state reported record high profits. For instance, Chevron, which has a refinery in our backyard, reported $11.2 billion in profits, their second-highest quarterly profit ever. Phillips 66 profits jumped to $5.4 billion, a 1243 percent increase over last year’s $402 million.

Refinery pre-scheduled maintenance is not a credible explanation for the sudden $1.54 increase in what refineries charge for every gallon of gas Californians buy. Furthermore, the nerve of the oil companies using the war in my homeland to make exorbitant profits is inhumane. The people of Ukraine would not be suffering if Europe wasn’t dependent on Russian gas. The people of California wouldn’t be deciding what supplies not to buy because they have to fill up their gas tanks to get to work. For our security and the world’s, we need energy independence from fossil fuels. First, we need to ensure a windfall profit cap and rebate for consumers becomes law. The legislature must see this as a national security issue and get it done.

There is a better way. Recently California installed rooftop solar panel number 1.5 million – a milestone for an increasingly affordable, clean, and democratized renewable energy supply that is equivalent to getting 4 million cars off a road for a year or permanently shutting down 20 gas-fired plants. Yet the California Public Utilities Commission has recently proposed slashing incentives for homeowners, tenants, schools, places of worship, and small businesses to install and benefit from such solar systems by 75-80 percent – the steepest solar cliff tried anywhere in the nation.

A respected market analyst noted that a previous, even more wrongheaded, rendition of this proposal would have slashed solar adoption in half, threatening our nation’s – and the state’s own – climate action and resiliency goals. Instead of making local rooftop solar and battery storage more affordable, the proposal would do the opposite. Specifically, it would force our state to rely more on long-distance transmission lines, which, as we have seen from Putin’s despicable attacks on my homeland’s centralized energy infrastructure – a single point of failure – as well as our own state’s recent history of fires and rolling blackouts, is not appealing.

While the war on Ukraine, to those who don’t have ties there, may seem like an endless conflict raging thousands of miles away from our home, what we do as Californians to choose our energy supply has a deep impact on bringing this nightmare – which every night keeps me awake and scared for the safety of my loved ones – to an end. We owe it to our shared humanity to act decisively today.

We can and must choose people over profit. Choose life-affirming technologies like distributed solar and battery storage over life-destroying and war-funding fossil fuels. Choose energy democracy over an energy monopoly. Call the Governor at 916-445-2841 today. Ask him to continue holding oil and gas executives accountable and to continue their climate leadership by standing up to the utility monopoly and preventing rooftop solar and battery storage from being sent off a cliff. I know that we can make that choice here in our Golden State. And, as goes California, so will go our nation and, eventually, our entire planet – the only planet we call home.

In the words of Ksenia, my childhood friend, “make an American dream possible in Ukraine today.”