If you eliminate fossil fuels, power shortages are inevitable.
Millions of Californians have lost power in recent days amid a brutal heat wave, and state regulators warn of more outages in the days and perhaps years to come. Welcome to California’s green new normal, a harbinger of a fossil-free world.
“These blackouts, which occurred without prior warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state,” Gov. Gavin Newsom declared Monday while ordering regulators to pull out all stops to keep power on. “This cannot stand.”
Mr. Newsom is demanding an investigation, though he can start with his party’s obsessions over climate and eliminating fossil fuels. Even former Gov. Gray Davis admitted the culprit is the state’s anti-fossil fuel policies. “The bottom line is, people don’t want lights to go down,” he told Politico. “People also want a carbon-free future. Sometimes those two aspirations come into conflict.” They certainly do.
California’s Independent System Operator (Caiso) has been warning for years that the state’s increasing dependence on intermittent renewables, especially solar, is making it harder to ensure reliable power. Renewables currently make up about 36% of California’s electric generation, and Democrats have set a 60% mandate for 2030 and 100% for 2045.
Caiso in part blamed cloud cover, weak winds and failures at a couple of power plants for this weekend’s power outages. But this happens when you rush to shut down power plants to meet government diktats and reduce the amount of reliable baseload power. Unlike fossil-fuel plants, solar and wind can’t ramp up quickly when other power generators go down. Solar power also plunges in the evening, and the state didn’t have enough backup power to compensate to meet high demand.
Dozens of natural-gas plants that can ramp up power on demand have closed since 2013—enough to supply about four million households—so California is relying more on energy imported from other states when needed. In normal times it imports about 15% of its energy. But the Golden State’s neighbors are also experiencing heat waves, and many have also been replacing fossil fuels with renewables too.
Over the weekend, Caiso imported hydropower from the Pacific Northwest, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released emergency water flows from the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River to generate hydroelectricity. Californians are fortunate that reservoirs were relatively full this year after a somewhat wet winter.
Los Angeles’s Department of Water and Power, which draws nearly 20% of its electricity from out-of-state coal, also chipped in supply. And Mr. Newsom on Monday waived the state’s emissions standards to allow businesses and utilities to run fossil-fuel generators, many procured for emergency power outages during wildfire seasons.
The power outages will get worse and more frequent as the state becomes more reliant on renewables. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has directed utilities to triple their battery storage for electricity by 2026. But this won’t make up for the natural-gas and nuclear plants that are slated to shut down in the interim—or the state’s power shortfalls during the heat wave.
Batteries are also expensive and present their own environmental hazards. Caiso has warned that the PUC isn’t accounting for battery recycling and replacement costs or how several days of cloudy weather could reduce solar energy storage. Batteries need to be replaced after 10 or so years, and disposing of their toxic metals is expensive.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the capital costs for a solar plant with an attached battery system run between 50% and 150% higher than for a new natural-gas plant. Natural-gas plants are still much less expensive after accounting for fuel costs, and they generally have a lifespan of 30 or more years.