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Democrats Say California Is Model For Climate Action But Its Blackouts Say Otherwise

Michael Shellenberger, Forbes

The underlying reason blackouts are occurring is because California lacks reliable, in-state supply. And the reason for that is California has been closing both natural gas and nuclear power plants.

At the Democratic National Convention this week, presidential and vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will make the case for spending $2 trillion, or $500 billion per year, to transition the U.S. away from fossil fuels toward renewables like solar and wind. 

Biden has said he would not “tinker around the edges” with his plan. “We’re going to make historic investments that will seize the opportunity.”

In many respects, the Biden-Harris plan is even more aggressive than California’s. “The plan is very bold,” Leah Stokes of the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the Financial Times. “There is no [US] state right now that has a target this ambitious.”Recommended For You

But California’s big bet on renewables, and shunning of natural gas and nuclear, is directly responsible for the state’s blackouts and high electricity prices. 

“We will be forced today to ask utilities to cut off power to millions today, and tomorrow, and beyond,” said Stephen Berberich, the President and CEO of California’s Independent System Operator, CAISO, on a Monday morning conference call. “Demand will greatly exceed supply.”

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The immediate cause of California’s blackouts is a mismatch between electricity supply and demand. Higher temperatures have led to greater demand for air conditioning. And California has less electricity, including from wind energy, available.

And yet, while California is hot, weather conditions are well within the normal range for the state’s summer weather.

The underlying reason blackouts are occurring is because California lacks reliable, in-state supply. And the reason for that is California has been closing both natural gas and nuclear power plants.

“People wonder how we made it through the heat wave of 2006,” said Berberich. “The answer is that there was a lot more generating capacity in 2006 than in 2020…. We had San Onofre [nuclear plant] of 2,200 MW, and a number of other plants, totalling thousands of MW not there today.”

For decades, California Democrats have argued that major economies can run mostly, if not entirely, on renewables. “We are in the future business in California and that means we’re in the renewables business,” said Governor Gavin Newsom in 2016, when he made the case for closing the state’s nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon. 

“The situation could have been avoided,” said Berberich. “For many years we have pointed out that there was inadequate supply after electricity from solar has left the peak. We have indicated in filing after filing after filing that procurement needed to be fixed. We have told regulators over and over that more should be contracted for. That was rebuffed. And here we are.”

According to California’s grid operator, CAISO, demand for electricity today will climb over 49,000 megawatts, which is 6,000 MW more than yesterday. 

Despite these capacity shortfalls, the state is moving ahead with plans to remove 2,200-MW of reliable electricity from the grid.  That’s the amount of power produced by Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which will be closed in stages in 2024 and 2025. 

Democrats have long pointed to batteries as the way to integrate unreliable renewables onto the grid. Yes, renewables are unreliable, they admit. But if we can store energy collected during periods of peak capacity, we can parcel it out during periods of peak demand.

However, batteries are simply not up to the task. One of the largest lithium battery storage centers in the world is in Escondido, California. It can only store enough power to service 24,000 of California’s 13,000,000 households.

And it can only do so for four hours. If demand surges for the better part of a day, the system will fail. Indeed, for renewables to work, batteries would need to be able to store the power for weeks and perhaps even months.

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