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Here's the Breakdown:

  • A heatwave in the West is putting a strain on California’s energy supply, thus forcing rolling blackouts and leaving Californians in the dark
  • Wind farms and solar arrays provide an abundance of energy in CA that cannot be stored and cannot be relied on if the sun isn't out or wind isn't blowing
  • California, in addressing the global climate crisis, has aggressively pushed to adopt green energy solutions, closing natural gas and nuclear power plants
  • The State's transition from traditional energy to greener solutions was rushed and unrealistic, failing to account for fluctuating energy demands and the need for reliable energy sources
  • The State must consider energy solutions to meet the energy demands of all Californians

The Golden State’s summer is in full swing, and once again, California is experiencing a disastrous wildfire season sparked in part by lightning strikes from dry thunderstorms. Hundreds of fires of various sizes and intensity are raging out of control and the State’s firefighting resources are stretched so thin that officials have to make difficult decisions where to focus the limited resources they have available.

The wildfires come as California and indeed the entire West, from the Pacific Coast to the Great Basin, is dealing with a heat wave that has set records for high temperatures. The aptly-named Death Valley in California reached 130 degrees—possibly the highest temperature ever recorded on earth, according to the National Weather Service.

The result of the heat wave was a strain on California’s energy supply that forced the State’s grid operator, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), to declare emergencies and institute rolling blackouts that affected millions of consumers on consecutive days (8/14/2020 and 8/15/2020).

Unlike the power shutoffs of 2019 that were used to reduce the chance of wildfires caused by power lines and dry conditions, the 2020 version of outages were caused by something that California experienced during the infamous 2000-2001 Energy Crisis.

A repeat of 2000-2001, it was again a question of not enough supply to meet California’s insatiable demand for electricity.

In 2000-2001, the culprit was an aging fleet of power plants, lack of water behind the dams that provide hydroelectric power, a heatwave across the West, and market manipulation by unscrupulous energy traders.

Fast forward to 2020 and the cause was once again a supply issue.

But, it was not energy from reliable on-demand natural gas power plants that was lacking.  It was an oversupply of unreliable and intermittent renewable energy from wind farms and solar arrays.

California’s rush to get rid of carbon and nuclear powered energy and replacing it with energy from wind and the sun predictably created an imbalance.  The intermittent nature of renewable power meant there was not enough round-the-clock baseload energy to see the State through high-demand peaks.

The result was rolling blackouts with disastrous consequences for California’s citizens and economy.

This time, the crisis can and should be laid at the feet of those that are most responsible. Namely, groups who insisted that California immediately and carelessly transition from power plants run primarily on natural gas and nuclear to renewables like wind and solar, without adequate consideration for maintaining a steady supply of affordable energy.

The influence of these groups at regulatory agencies like the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the California Energy Commission (CEC) that placed the State on a forced march to a carbon-free utopia, forgot the basic laws of physics and economic laws of supply and demand.

These regulatory agencies also bear much of the blame. During a public meeting of the CAISO on Monday, August 17, 2020, CAISO’s outgoing CEO, Steve Berberich told the Board of Directors of the CAISO that what happened was anticipated and that his agency repeatedly told the CPUC of the procurement needs and potentials for electricity shortfalls.

Irresponsible rules and policies have forced utilities to purchase ever-expanding amounts of renewable energy like wind and solar, leaving California vulnerable during summer heat storms that impact the entire West, as “extra” supply from neighboring states might not be available. 

At the same time, policies that forced the early retirement and closure of natural gas-fueled plants and the State’s two nuclear facilities, as well as limiting electricity imports of certain electricity from out-of-state facilities, add to California’s vulnerabilities.

This drastic transition was untested and certainly not on the scale that could, and now has impacted the fifth largest economy in the world.

Well-intentioned but under-studied policies that dictated how energy is produced, procured and developed with arbitrary dates for the implementation of a green energy plan, set in motion the situation California finds itself in today. California has developed a grand vision of a carbon-neutral future, but has failed to adequately plan for this transition.

This crisis was avoidable and was completely self-inflicted.

As the current heat wave has shown, when there is no wind, there is no wind power, and when the sun goes down, so does the power that it creates.

There aren’t batteries large enough and there isn’t enough battery storage capacity currently to supply what California demands on a daily basis. Batteries in of themselves will eventually create a whole new set of toxic environmental problems, and its own set of foreign country resource dependence, with no policy solution.

Unlike natural gas or nuclear power plants that can ramp up quickly to meet California’s electricity demand, neither special interest groups, regulators, nor politicians can command the wind to blow or the sun to shine to meet that demand.

California has abundant natural gas right under its feet, but the State’s regulatory policies won’t allow it to be brought to the surface where it can help realize just and reasonable electricity prices for consumers.

While California’s in-State natural gas facilities kept the blackouts recently experienced from being much worse, there are those who would like to see them all closed now. 

In a report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Laura Wisland, the report’s co-author and senior energy manager stated:

“There are more than two dozen natural gas plants that are dead weight on the system and not necessary to keep the lights on. It would be cheaper for California ratepayers if these plants were retired rather than paying to keep them operating.”

Ms. Wisland further stated:

“Today, we have a booming market for clean, renewable energy and a glut of natural gas power plants. We cannot have both in the future if we want to reach our clean energy and climate targets. Without an orderly plan to retire unnecessary gas plants and usher in clean technologies, we risk having more carbon emissions and more pollution.”

If the Union of Concerned Scientists had been successful in 2018 of shuttering two dozen gas-fired plants, the temporary rolling blackouts that are currently inconveniencing Californians would turn into days and even weeks long blackouts.  And, even worse, it would cause a cascade effect collapsing the entire Western grid, causing blackouts from the West Coast to the Rockies and from the Canadian border to the Mexican border.

The crisis California is experiencing right now will only get worse unless the policymakers and politicians admit their mistakes and take what Governor Newsom said was a “sober look” at what the consequences of their past actions have caused.

Is it time for policymakers to admit that clean natural gas is California’s blue bridge to a green future?  Failure to recognize this reality may result in rolling blackouts being the rule, and not the exception, for the foreseeable future.