Rolling blackouts have forced California to defend its ambitious renewable energy plans.
In recent days, Republican politicians have blamed the blackouts on California’s efforts to limit fossil fuel energy use and phase out nuclear energy. The outages were imposed on a rotating basis over the weekend amid a severe heat wave made worse by climate change.
“This week in California, there were rolling blackouts because the radical Democrats have mandated impossible restrictions on energy production,” President Trump said Thursday during remarks in Old Forge, Pennsylvania.
Trump has also sought to link California’s woes with the climate policy plans of his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. Biden, in his revamped climate plans unveiled in July, sets a target to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035. That’s even more ambitious than California’s goal, which targets 100% carbon-free power by 2045.
California officials, however, have said that renewable energy wasn’t the root cause of the state’s rolling blackouts.
“We have already taken many steps to integrate these resources, but we clearly need to do more,” the leaders of the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Independent System Operator, and the California Energy Commission wrote in a letter Wednesday to Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. “Clean energy and reliable energy are not contradictory goals.”
CAISO, the grid operator, has said it resorted to the outages because it didn’t have enough power feeding into the system – a combination of two natural gas plants going offline, a slowdown in wind power, and a sharp drop-off of solar power during the evenings, according to initial review.
Nonetheless, the bitter politics over climate threaten to overshadow challenges energy experts say California will have to manage as it moves more rapidly toward renewables, including longer-term planning to ensure the state has enough resources on its grid.
“It’s definitely politicized, and everyone on all sides of this digs their heels in a little too much,” said Alex Trembath, deputy director at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center that supports developing clean energy technologies to address climate change.
California officials, politicians, and resource planners shouldn’t pick sides or “insist and promise that there will be no issues with the energy transition,” Trembath added. Instead, they “should be honest about the challenges that come with a major statewide infrastructure turnover and the technology transition, and deal with it appropriately.”
A problem for California, however, is power outages risk the people’s trust in the state.
“It’s the fifth-largest economy in the world, and arguably, it’s the most innovative economy in America. You just can’t have blackouts. It just can’t happen,” said former California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who was leading the state the last time California experienced rotating blackouts in 2001, brought on by the Enron scandal.
“We have to err on the side of caution to make sure we have more than adequate reserves” to protect lives and livelihoods, Davis told the Washington Examiner in an interview.
Davis, who as governor signed California’s and the nation’s first law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said he is “totally committed” to the clean energy transition, but he cautioned California officials must keep electric reliability in mind.
“If we can get there by going all green, by that I mean we can build an appropriate backup capacity that’s all green, I’m for it,” he said. “If we can’t get there going all green, we have to work with what we have.”
California’s grid operator says the problem isn’t that the state has too many renewables, but that it doesn’t have enough. Steve Berberich, CAISO’s chief executive, has called for a greater buildout of renewables and energy storage to help balance the grid. A surplus of renewable energy, he said, can be used to charge batteries that can be used when the electricity supply is stressed.
“You have to add companion energy to charge the storage,” Berberich told reporters Wednesday. “That has to be part of the conversation both in the short and long term.”
He sees a role for all types of storage, including long-duration and seasonal storage. The latter would allow California to avoid curtailing the excess solar energy it has in the spring and instead store it for future use, he said.
That storage technology must be viable and commercialized first, however. In the meantime, energy experts say California officials need to be planning for the long term – by bringing on a lot more capacity, especially to replace retiring gas and nuclear plants, and diversifying its low-carbon energy portfolio beyond solar power.
“What we really realized has been missing is a plan on how we’re going to get the right mix of renewable resources online,” said Danielle Mills Osborn, director of the American Wind Energy Association’s California chapter.
California’s grid today is built around conventional resources, such as natural gas, hydropower, and imports from other states, Osborn said. Thus, the grid, energy policies, and electricity market design all must be redesigned to support renewable energy, she added.
The California Public Utilities Commission has already taken some small steps, directing 3,300 megawatts of new resources to come online in the state by 2023. The first of those resources will begin coming online next year, according to the agencies’ letter.
Osborn expects those additional megawatts will be all renewables, but she said that’s just a first step in terms of the capacity California should be planning. The state should also be building out a more diverse set of renewable resources beyond solar, including onshore and offshore wind, as well as transmission lines to carry location-dependent renewables to population centers, she added.
Building out surplus renewable energy and storage capacity, however, could be more costly than incorporating other zero-carbon resources that can generate power 24/7, such as nuclear energy and natural gas with carbon capture and storage, Trembath said. That’s because a surplus renewable build-out would require more money for resources that could sit idled, potentially driving up rates for customers.
Davis, the former California governor, recommended Newsom pull together the three energy agencies, academia, Silicon Valley, and other energy experts in the state to formulate a plan, both to vet the state’s climate goals and to ensure the state has adequate backup power in emergency situations like the intense heat wave it experienced over the weekend.
“People expect the lights to go on when they flip the switch. They don’t think the state is doing them a favor when they provide electricity. They expect it,” Davis said.
“Decision-makers need to act with that in mind,” the former California governor added. “You want to go out of your way to make sure that in a worst-case scenario, you’ve thought it through.”
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