In the latest demonstration that politicians and regulators are unqualified to operate an economy, utility executives are yet again worried about blackouts rolling across the state, this time because California’s expensive rush to install wind and solar power plants has left it with far more electricity than it needs – but dependent on renewable energy that is inherently less reliable.
It’s been apparent for centuries that windmills don’t turn when the wind doesn’t blow. Similarly, solar panels can’t pump electrons at night or on cloudy days. Yet such verities have apparently escaped the brightest minds in the state’s vast legislative-regulatory complex.
To combat climate change, Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 approved legislation requiring 33 percent of the state’s power supply to come from renewable resources. This followed an earlier 20 percent mandate that spurred a gold rush by developers to leverage state and federal subsidies to build renewable power plants.
The result is that California will have 44 percent more generating capacity than it needs next year, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. But the mix isn’t right: There aren’t enough natural-gas-fueled “peaker” units in the right places to handle surges in demand if renewables go offline, particularly during heat waves, when air conditioning use soars.
Rolling blackouts threaten by 2015, or even this year if we get an unusually hot summer.
Bad luck has played a small role: Engineering mistakes crippled the San Onofre nuclear generators. That removed the region’s largest single resource, particularly hurting Southern California Edison, although San Diego Gas & Electric Co. gets 20 percent of its supply from the plant.
But if the lights go out over the next few summers, state officials get most of the blame.
Air-quality restrictions limit output from old generators in Huntington Beach brought out of retirement to back up San Onofre. Regulators want them shut down entirely by 2018.
And last week the Public Utilities Commission, after stalling for two years, once again delayed approval of SDG&E’s application to buy power from urgently needed peakers proposed in Escondido, Otay Mesa and near Mission Trails Regional Park. Meanwhile, NIMBY’s are fighting a plan to replace the aging Encina plant in Carlsbad.
During California’s 2000-01 power crisis, the notorious energy firm Enron, which had loaded its trading desk with Ph.D. economists and mathematicians, hired political scientists to help it manage extreme “political risk” in the Golden State that, in the firm’s judgment, had surpassed that of Latin America or Africa.
Indeed, those were chaotic times; bills tripled in two months in San Diego County, the PUC triggered rolling blackouts by capping power prices, and Gov. Gray Davis threatened to send the National Guard to seize and operate generators.
While such drama has subsided, consumers once again face blackouts, and botched regulation is still the root cause.
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