California’s electricity grid picked an inconvenient moment to stumble, at least for Democrats seeking to drum up support this week for Joseph R. Biden’s $2 trillion green-energy plan at the Democratic National Convention.
The Golden State’s ambitious renewable portfolio standard is coming under fire as the state’s energy grid buckles under the strain of an oppressive heatwave, prompting rolling blackouts that have left millions without power as the state moves to replace nuclear and natural gas as energy sources with solar and wind.
California seeks to generate 60% of electricity via renewables by 2030, but Mr. Biden’s Green New Deal is even more aggressive, calling for a 100% carbon-free grid by 2035 “to meet the existential threat of climate change while creating millions of jobs with a choice to join a union.”
“If they want to know what’s going to happen in a Biden presidency with his energy plan, look to California today,” said Larry Behrens, Western director of Power the Future. “You can apply that nationwide. You can look at forms of energy that have been reliable for decades, providing not only energy but affordable energy and jobs for communities, being swept away.”
President Trump weighed in Tuesday on the blackouts with a swipe at Mr. Biden as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, both of whom have also called for powering the electrical grid with net-zero carbon emissions.
“Democrats have intentionally implemented rolling blackouts — forcing Americans in the dark,” tweeted Mr. Trump. “Democrats are unable to keep up with energy demand … Meanwhile, I gave America energy independence in fact, so much energy we could never use it all.”
He added, “The Bernie/Biden/AOC Green New Deal plan would take California’s failed policies to every American!”
Less capacity across West
California turned to rolling power outages last week as temperatures soared over 100 degrees in many locations, the first time the state has done so to combat electricity deficits since 2001. Last year’s rolling blackouts were implemented to reduce wildfire danger from electrical lines.
In 2001, however, the shortage was caused by energy-market manipulations during peak load times, while this month’s blackouts occurred when demand exceeded supply after solar-power generation shut down after sunset, combined with the loss of fossil-fuel power plants across the West.
“There are several things at play,” said Stephen Berberich, president of the California Independent System Operator [CAISO], which runs the state grid. “The first is we do have less capacity here in California. A number of units have been retired since the 2006 heat wave, and there’s also less resources across the West because many of the large units in the West have retired or are retiring, as people move off of coal.”
That means California has less ability to import electricity to cover surges in demand.
“So what we’re seeing is less capacity in California, but more importantly, less capacity across rest of the region,” Mr. Berberich said.
Heartland Institute senior fellow Anthony Watts, who runs the skeptical Watts Up With That website, said that “California is paying the price for abandoning reliable energy sources in favor of green energy sources.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Monday an investigation into the blackouts, which he noted Friday “occurred without prior warning or enough time for preparation.”
“Residents, communities and other governmental organizations did not receive sufficient warning that these de-energizations could occur,” Mr. Newsom said. “Collectively, energy regulators failed to anticipate this event and to take necessary actions to ensure reliable power to Californians. This cannot stand. California residents and businesses deserve better from their government.”
The triple-digit temperatures, coupled with lightning strikes in Northern California, also fueled wildfires, including the SCU Lightning Complex fire in Santa Clara, which had burned 25,000 acres and was 0% contained as of Tuesday, according to CalFire.
‘Caught off guard’
As Mr. Berberich pointed out at a Monday operator meeting, his agency has been concerned for years about possible power shortages.
“Every year it’s a big issue,” said Kenny Stein, policy analyst at the Institute for Energy Research. “CAISO has been warning the state for about a decade now, saying, we’ve got more and more solar, that’s making it harder and harder for us to meet peak demand after the sun sets. You need to do something.”
The problem? Californians already pay some of the highest electricity bills in the nation, and it would cost billions to bring battery storage in line with the state’s renewable mandates, he said.
“The state has not taken any action, partly because it would be very expensive,” Mr. Stein said. “They’ve got to have a bunch of battery power, or they’ve got pay someone to have a natural gas plant sitting idle.”
On a Tuesday press call, Mr. Berberich took responsibility for Friday’s outage, saying “we were caught off guard” by a surge in demand throughout the heat-strapped West, but said an unexpected drop in wind generation played a role in Saturday’s blackout.
“On Saturday night, right before the peak, we lost the 400-megawatt unit, and the wind had been very good, and then it ran out, 1,000 megawatts, right about the time that unit went off line,” he said. “And we found ourselves in a deficit.”
He added that “if the wind hadn’t run out on us, we would have been okay.”
Mr. Berberich said the state needs to look at how it backfills retired coal and natural-gas units, but stressed that “renewables have not caused this issue.”
“This is a resource issue, not a renewables issue, and I think we need to be more thoughtful about what the grid looks like now,” he said.
Trying to end gas, nuclear
Renewable energy, including hydropower, supplied nearly half of the state’s electrical grid in 2018, while natural gas contributed about 40%, but the state has moved to decommission natural-gas power plants to makes the transition off fossil fuels.
The state only has one nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, after shutting down the San Onofre Nuclear Station in 2013.
“California’s electricity prices will continue to rise if it continues to add more renewables to its grid, and goes forward with plans to shut down its last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, in 2025,” said Michael Shellenberger, author of “Apocalypse Never,” in an op-ed in Forbes. “Had California spent an estimated $100 billion on nuclear instead of on wind and solar, it would have had enough energy to replace all fossil fuels in its in-state electricity mix.”
Ralph Cavanagh, energy co-director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a Monday post that California should improve conservation and Western grid integration to improve reliability, lower costs, and maximize “our growing fleet of renewable energy generators like wind and solar.”
“That’s a far better and cheaper reliability strategy than running dirty emergency diesel generators on hot afternoons (often in densely populated places),” he said.
Critics of California’s renewable mandates said that Democrats at this week’s convention should bear that in mind as they cheer proposals for an all-renewable grid.
“There are few states have the winds and solar exposure that California has, and if it fails in California at short of a 50% implementation of renewables, you can bet others states with even less solar/wind resources are going to go dark,” Mr. Watts said. “A 100% renewables target is a pipe-dream and a recipe for disaster.”