The prolonged heat wave of 100-degree-plus temperatures that grips California has strained the state’s electric power grid to the breaking point, resulting in rolling blackouts for the first time in nearly two decades.
California’s Independent System Operator (ISO), which manages the distribution of power for the state’s investor-owned utilities, imposed temporary outages as demands from air conditioning systems in millions of heat-stressed homes approached supply capacity.
The blackouts clearly tell us that California has a power supply problem. It’s unacceptable that a state that with a world-class economy grounded in cutting edge technology has the unreliable electrical service of a third world country.
Moreover, if we lack sufficient generating capacity now, the gap between supply and demand will grow even wider as our population continues to grow and if, as we are constantly told, the climate becomes ever warmer.
Our power supply problem stems largely from political policies aimed at phasing out hydrocarbon energy, such as natural gas-powered generators, shutting down nuclear plants and relying more on “renewables” such as solar panels and windmills.
By decree, the latter are supplying ever-increasing amounts of power, but they are much less reliable than traditional generation. Therefore, when demand climbs to near-record levels ISO must turn to natural gas-fired plants to make up the difference, particularly if it cannot acquire more juice from out-of-state generators.
ISO data reveal that when demand peaks, natural gas plants are supplying half or more of California’s power, but even so there are not enough electrons because we have discouraged construction of more gas-fired generation.
“The situation is one that could have been avoided,” Steve Berberich, ISO’s top executive, told the agency’s board on Monday during a review of weekend blackouts, adding that the supply situation “is broken and needs to be fixed.”
Berberich said the ISO has repeatedly warned the California Utilities Commission that an additional 4,700 megawatts of supply is needed but only a portion was authorized on a delayed basis, leaving a gap that couldn’t be closed when the heat wave hit.
In theory, massive battery banks could be constructed to store solar and wind power when it’s plentiful and supplant hydrocarbon generation altogether, but so far that’s just a theory.
Three years ago, ISO published a scenario that envisioned a massive shift from hydrocarbons to renewable electricity in homes, commercial businesses and in transportation by 2030, all but eliminating hydrocarbon energy.
Other than laws requiring utilities to increase their use of solar, wind and other renewable sources, however, little of the ISO’s vision, which mirrors other official projections, has become reality. The COVID-19 pandemic and the severe economic recession it spawned will probably retard the conversion to an all-electric society even more.
For the foreseeable future, therefore, we will need the natural gas generators that environmental activists love to hate, along with the equally vital infrastructure of gas wells and pipelines that they also want to cancel. In fact we need even more of them as demands increase.
Minutes after Berberich’s report, Gov. Gavin Newsom took to social media to say that the blackouts are “sobering to the reality” that “more insurance” in power supply is needed and pledged to provide it.
However, he must also answer why the Public Utilities Commission, composed of governor’s appointees, has failed to heed ISO’s warnings about inadequate supply.
Newsom is fond of the word “foundational” to describe things that must be done. There’s nothing more foundational than having the lights shine when you flick the switch or air conditioning to function when the mercury soars.
Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.
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