With his Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama is repeating California’s expensive mistake of ignoring the engineering realities of saving the planet and imposing political quotas requiring solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.
On the bright side, the president gives states flexibility to use auctions to cut carbon dioxide and other climate-changing emissions by 32 percent.
But then he also requires them to get 28 percent of their total power from renewable energy. The latter is a costly distraction from the former.
The big problem is that solar and wind energy are inherently unreliable. Solar power plummets on cloudy days, and falls to zero at sundown. Same goes with wind turbines on a windless evening.
Until somebody invents a cheap battery, powering the modern economy will always depend on standby generators to ramp up whenever green energy falls short – pretty much a daily occurrence.
In California, reliability generally comes from power plants burning natural gas. Thankfully, natural gas is cheap these days, and it emits far less carbon dioxide than coal and other fossil fuels.
But the good news ends there. In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature required utilities to use renewables for 20 percent of their power, a figure later increased to 33 percent by 2020.
Gov. Jerry Brown has gone further, recently lecturing the pope on the Golden State’s virtue and promising to boost renewable power to 50 percent of consumption by 2030.
If these seem like suspiciously round numbers, go the head of the class. No scientist said optimal climate-change strategy requires getting a fifth, one-third, or half our power from renewables. Another clue is that carbon reductions weren’t linked directly to the policy.
This omission turns out to be really important. To understand why, consider a local example: Carlsbad’s giant Encina power plant is 62 years old. Newer plants in Escondido and Otay Mesa use about 45 percent less fuel to generate the same power.
So if you asked a utility engineer, she’d say: “Let’s retire and replace Encina. Bam! Cut carbon more than 40 percent.” This, by the way, is much larger than the 16 percent reduction by 2020 from 2013 levels required by California’s “cap-and-trade” auction.
Our wise engineer might also buy limited amounts of solar and wind power to handle summer peaks in demand, as well as hedge against higher gas prices in the future. The right mix varies greatly from utility to utility.
However, California’s governors didn’t ask the engineers. They simply picked easy-to-explain targets. Then they left the actual reductions in carbon emissions to cap and trade, which only launched two years ago.
This delinkage persists. If you ask utility executives – as I have – how much carbon they’ve cut since 2006, you get a shrug. But they can describe their renewable portfolios to the megawatt.
Caring about carbon is left to the California Air Resources Board, not the Public Utilities Commission. And neither agency is measuring how well the renewable energy push has worked to reduce carbon output, as compared with other strategies.
Here again, I’ve been asking this question for nearly two years, but I’ve failed to find a single state official who knows, or even seems to care much.
You’d think that mandating huge purchases of zero-carbon energy would naturally cut emissions by a like amount. But you’d be wrong.
When California imposed its quota, utilities mostly layered green energy on top of the state’s ancient gas-fired system. And these old plants don’t ramp up and down quickly, so operators run them all night just in case the wind doesn’t blow.
The result wasn’t just bad for the planet, it’s been horribly expensive. Imagine buying a new car for $30,000, and then leaving your $15,000 used one in the driveway, just in case, instead of trading it in.
California’s grid manager, which requires a 15 percent reserve margin, said in 2013 that it would have 40 percent more generating capacity than needed in 2014.
The agency also warned recently that Brown’s move to 50 percent green energy would force managers to pay solar and wind operators not to produce – or face rolling blackouts from voltage volatility.
Meanwhile, high prices compound the cost of overcapacity.
“It requires an investment of approximately $29 million in utility-scale solar capacity to produce the same output with the same reliability as a $1 million investment in gas (generators),” while wind is about 10 times the cost, found a 2014 study by the Brookings Institution.
Indeed, California’s crash program explains why residential rates have jumped 42 percent for customers of San Diego Gas & Electric.
It’s also lucrative for utilities. State and federal law allows them to collect profits for decades on construction of long-distance power lines to reach renewable projects.
For that matter, shutting down the giant, zero-carbon San Onofre nuclear plant gave Southern California Edison a golden opportunity to replace its output at far higher profitability.
To his credit, Obama has given states incentives for nuclear energy.
Just as important, California utilities have cut the amount of carbon in each megawatt by nearly 21 percent from 2006 through 2013. But a big fraction came from, you guessed it, upgrading fossil plants.
Someday, breakthroughs in battery technology may liberate the grid from fossil fuels. But they’ve been saying that about solar since the 1970s.
Obama has missed an opportunity to learn from California’s experience, which suggests that renewable mandates may do less to save planet Earth than to save utilities and green energy developers on Wall Street – at the expense of consumers.