It’s hot out West and California’s electricity grid is under tremendous strain. The state’s first intentional rolling blackouts since its 2001 energy crisis hit on Friday. Tuesday’s forecast electricity demand is likely to exceed the record reached in 2006. Also, if it weren’t for substantial imports of electricity from coal- and gas-fired power plants in other Western states, it would be far worse.
California’s energy travails come at an embarrassing time for the Democratic national presidential ticket of former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
Biden’s past energy policies were fairly standard fare for old-school Democrats: massive government spending and regulations to pick winners and losers—the $535 million Solyndra collapse is illustrative. His current plan is more of the same, spending $2 trillion, some of which will go to buy the silent acceptance of Big Oil.
By comparison, Harris’ policies are a radical departure, and, as can be seen in California, fail when confronted with the real world. Harris partnered with New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the multi-trillion-dollar Green New Deal, an energy plan so ambitious it envisioned a continental network of government-run high-speed trains while grounding America’s commercial air fleet.
Likewise, California’s high-speed rail project has been cut back from the 380-mile San Francisco to Los Angeles route to a 140-mile Bakersfield to Merced run that few will ever ride, as the costs of the project tripled from $33.6 billion to $98.1 billion. The train would run on electricity—if it were available.
California’s electricity problem is simple. Its energy policies demand ever-increasing amounts of wind and solar power, but electricity must be generated the moment it’s consumed. The wind doesn’t always blow—especially when it’s hot—and the sun doesn’t always shine. Therefore, California must import vast amounts of power from the 13 other states (along with Canada and Mexico) in the Western Interconnection whenever that’s required to keep the lights on and the air conditioners running.
In 2018, almost a third of the retail electricity California used was imported—with coal, gas, and nuclear power in the mix. California’s environmental virtues do have a limit. But coal-fired power plants in Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming may not be around much longer to sell power to California during a heat wave. There are two reasons for this.
First, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law in 2006 that banned renewing contracts to import coal-fired electricity. This law was later expanded to cover municipal utilities, such as the behemoth L.A. Department of Water and Power.
Second, California’s aggressive subsidies and mandates for solar and wind power have led to frequent surpluses of very cheap (but very unreliable) power flooding the Western grid. Under most states’ public utility rules, the lowest-cost electricity must be purchased first, often idling reliable—but more expensive to operate—coal and gas plants.
This has put significant financial pressure on reliable fossil fuel plants, leading many to close, often decades ahead of their planned decommissioning dates. As these reliable generators of power have shuttered, it has complicated grid operators’ ability to balance the grid.
When an electrical grid becomes unbalanced between power supply and power demand, bad things happen fast. Rolling blackouts can be a way to avoid physical damage to the grid’s components, such as transformers, powerlines, and even generators.
The Green New Deal has been criticized as an unworkable theoretical concept, long on marketing and thin on planning. California has come closer to the Green New Deal in reality than anywhere else, and Harris has been a vocal supporter of both.
The environmental left holds up California as the avatar of America’s energy future. For decades, the Golden State’s elected officials and regulators have been boosting renewable energy. Renewable electricity targets have been accelerated, with the state’s goal of 33 percent of its power from renewable sources, mostly solar and wind, this year, moving to 60 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030. By 2045, all of California’s electricity must come from carbon-free sources.
This effort doesn’t come on the cheap. For the privilege of having electricity when it’s available over the past few days, Californians pay 61 percent above the national average for electricity.
As a preview of national energy policy in Biden-Harris administration, California law makes it a crime to violate its Public Utilities Act while providing that the law’s intent is “…to provide for the evolution of the ISO (California’s Independent System Operator—the entity that manages California’s grid) into a regional organization to promote the development of regional electricity transmission markets in the western states.”
In plain English, this means California will dictate how the Western grid operates, the other 13 states be damned. As California’s electric policies metastasize to its neighbors, keeping the grid energized will become far more difficult.
To try to solve this problem of its own making, California is increasingly turning to batteries to store power. This is especially needed for wind power, which, in most places around the world, generally produces more wind at night when demand is lower. But despite spending billions on batteries, the state can still only store enough power to keep California energized for a few minutes.
Battery proponents always hint at big improvements just around the corner. But unlike computing, which is governed by Moore’s Law, with the capability of computers doubling every two years, batteries are constrained by chemistry and physics. They have to do physical work, whereas computers only manipulate 1s and 0s.
As an example, San Francisco’s 890,000 people would need an $8 billion battery farm weighing about 380,000 tons to avoid frequent blackouts if it were to go 100 percent renewable by 2045, as per California law. The cost would be about $16,000 per household. It’s important to note that after being drained over 12 hours, on a windless, cold winter’s day, power would be then unavailable in subsequent days if the state relied on such batteries.
In the meantime, California is making “cooling centers” available to vulnerable populations (so much for the ban on mass gatherings to prevent COVID transmission) while grid operators are seeking every watt of power they can get their hands on to avoid more widespread blackouts.
This has engendered push-back from Harris’ environmental allies, who complain that older gas-powered plants need to stay offline due to the environmental harm they cause to fish and sea lions. Yet people are in danger here. California’s last big heat wave, in 2006 before the environmental policies really took hold, resulted in some 140 deaths—with no rolling blackouts.
For Harris and the environmental left, fish are for saving and people are for frying.
This commentary originally appeared in the Federalist on August 18, 2020.