It is a point of pride for many Californians that despite business leaders’ continual criticism about high taxes and heavy regulation, the Golden State has the world’s fifth-biggest economy. It is also a point of pride for many Californians that the state is a global leader in seeking to limit climate change by mandating a shift away from fossil fuels.
What should not be a point of pride for anyone is that despite California’s wealth and savvy energy strategy, Wednesday marked the sixth straight day that regulators warned of possible rolling power outages because the state’s electricity grid is struggling to deal with heavy use of fans and air conditioning during a heat wave. The actual outages have been relatively minor, thanks to the public responding to urgent requests to minimize use of electricity.
But given that the outages are occurring on days when statewide electricity demand is significantly less than in the peaks seen in 2006 and 2017, and given that those prior years’ peaks resulted in no rolling outages at all, Californians have reason to be frustrated and angry with their leaders – again.
Voters reacted harshly to Gov. Gray Davis’ anemic response to the last statewide rolling outages in 2001, and recalled him in 2003. His successors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, downplayed worries that renewable solar and wind energy would be less reliable than natural gas, coal and nuclear power as they advocated for a cleaner power grid. Now warnings about outages underscore a key fact that Schwarzenegger, Brown and renewable energy advocates don’t like to talk about: Until utility-scale batteries are broadly available to store surplus solar power generated during the day, a renewable-energy-based grid is more vulnerable to demand surges that are to be expected as global warming worsens.
The current governor, Gavin Newsom, insists he was blindsided by this past week’s problems. But last September, the Independent System Operator, primary manager of California’s power grid, warned outages were possible beginning this summer in early evening when solar power dwindled but demand for keeping cool remained high – especially if California was unable to import energy from neighboring states because they too faced heat waves. That’s just what has happened the past week.
Given that California law dictates having 60% of electricity coming from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2045, this crisis should be a wake-up call for Newsom. Yes, California should keep leading the climate change fight. But while curtailing electricity use when needed is one thing, residents of so affluent a state shouldn’t have to hope the power stays on in a heat wave. They should know it does.
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