The blackouts and high electricity prices that are plaguing California provide a neon-lit warning sign about the looming renewables reliability and affordability crises.
Two inexorable energy trends are underway in California: soaring electricity prices and ever-worsening reliability – and both trends bode ill for the state’s low- and middle-income consumers.
Last week, the state’s grid operator, the California Independent System Operator, issued a “flex alert” that asked the state’s consumers to reduce their power use “to reduce stress on the grid and avoid power outages.” CAISO’s warning of impending electricity shortages heralds another blackout-riddled summer at the same time California’s electricity prices are skyrocketing.
In 2020, California’s electricity prices jumped by 7.5%, making it the biggest price increase of any state in the country last year and nearly seven times the increase that was seen in the United States as a whole. According to data from the Energy Information Administration, the all-sector price of electricity in California last year jumped to 18.15 cents per kilowatt-hour, which means that Californians are now paying about 70% more for their electricity than the U.S. average all-sector rate of 10.66 cents per kWh. Even more worrisome: California’s electricity rates are expected to soar over the next decade. (More on that in a moment.)
The surging cost of electricity will increase the energy burden being borne by low- and middle-income Californians. High energy costs have a particularly regressive effect in California, which has the highest poverty rate – and some of the highest electricity prices – in the country. In 2020, California’s all-sector electricity prices were the third-highest in the continental U.S., behind only Rhode Island (18.55 cents per kWh) and Connecticut (19.19 cents per kWh.)
Before going further, let me state the obvious: California policymakers are providing a case study in how not to manage an electric grid. Furthermore, that case study shows what could happen if policymakers at the state and federal levels decide to follow California’s radical decarbonization mandates, which include a requirement for 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045 and an economy-wide goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.
The state’s surging energy costs demonstrate the regressive nature of decarbonization policies and how renewable-energy mandates drive up the price of power. California’s electricity prices are “absolutely exploding,” says Mark Nelson, an energy analyst and the managing director of the Radiant Energy Fund, who used that phrase on a recent episode of the Power Hungry Podcast. He added that the electricity price hikes are happening before the state’s utilities have incurred all of the costs of the deadly wildfires that swept the state, trimming millions of trees to prevent future wildfires, and adding all the mandated renewable-energy capacity, transmission lines, and new battery storage that the state will need to meet its climate goals. Further, the costs do not include all of the costs that will be incurred after the proposed shuttering of Diablo Canyon in 2025.
Last week’s power conservation requests are likely the first of many to come. On May 27, CAISO CEO Elliot Mainzer warned that if the state is hit with another hot summer like the one that required rolling blackouts that left more than 800,000 homes and businesses without power over two days last August, “our numbers tell us the grid will be stressed again.” That warning followed a May 12 CAISO press release which warned that “reliability risks remain” and the state will likely need “voluntary” electricity conservation this summer to avoid a repeat of last year’s blackouts.
The specter of more blackouts is yet more bad news for California’s beleaguered consumers. Between 2010 and 2020, the state’s electricity prices jumped by 39.5%, which was, the biggest increase of any state in the U.S. Even more worrisome: California’s electricity rates will soar over the next decade.