Opinion

California Desperate for Fossil Fuel to Keep the Lights On

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During this month's flex alerts, California's grid managers asked for electricity fueled by natural gas to keep the lights on. (Shutterstock)
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The state that says it will be fully powered by renewables by 2045 has asked the federal government to find an electric reliability emergency which “requires intervention … to preserve the reliability of bulk electric power” in California. Following the request, the state’s grid operator issued two straight days of flex alerts, asking for voluntary energy conservation.

Kerry Jackson

Opinion

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm dated Sept. 7, the Independent System Operator requested and received an emergency order that would allow it “to dispatch additional generation that may be necessary for the CAISO to meet demand in the face of extremely challenging conditions including extreme heatwaves, multiple fires, high winds, and various grid issues.”

Grid Managers Ask for Natural Gas to Avoid Blackouts

Did CAISO ask for an additional 200 megawatts of power, enough to light 200,000 homes, from windmills? Or solar panels? No, it needed electricity from natural gas.

Yes, that natural gas. The source that policymakers across California are determined to eliminate from the state’s energy portfolio.

California’s recurring energy problems don’t inspire confidence that it will actually meet the 2045 renewables-only goal.

Last year the state was hit with rolling blackouts for the first time in nearly two decades. This year, at least a half dozen flex alerts encouraging customers to “set thermostats to 78 degrees or higher,” “avoid using major appliances, like dishwashers and clothes washers and dryers,” and “turn off all unnecessary lights” have been issued. How can officials expect to meet electricity demand in 2045, which will be in an era of significantly higher consumption, if demand is straining the grid in 2021?

California Imports 33% of Power

It’s almost a certainty that California will have to buy electricity from other states in 2045 and beyond. It already imports a third of its power; more than any other state. While much of what is imported from the Northwest is generated by renewables, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, imports from Arizona, Baja California, Colorado, Mexico, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah include “natural gas, nuclear energy, coal, or other, unspecified, resources,” as well as renewables.

“About 10% of California’s total electricity imports are from coal-fired power plants,” says the EIA, though essentially all of the state’s “imports of coal-fired generation are projected to end by 2026.”

We’ll see. Again, if California is having trouble with its current lineup of power sources, how will it meet increased demand in a short five years unless it relies on cheap, reliable fossil fuels?

Though “no one knows for sure how much solar and wind will be needed, or if it will be there, because of technological constraints and the variable and intermittent nature of solar and land-use requirements,” says Todd Royal, co-author of three books on energy, to be fully renewable as planned by 2045, output from those sources will have to not only be doubled or even tripled but likely more than quadrupled.

Including geothermal, roughly 38% of California’s in-state-generated electricity was produced by renewable sources last year. But we can exclude large hydroelectric power (9.4% of the renewables portfolio) from the future, because it will not be welcomed in the mix. That will leave solar (currently a little more than 13%) and wind (about 11%) to carry the bulk of in-state generation.

That’s no easy hill to climb. The California Energy Commission admits that achieving “clean electricity generation capacity” will require “a record-breaking rate” of development “for the next 25 years.” The renewables crusade will also need to overcome NIMBYs, who have banded together to stop and delay wind and solar projects worldwide.

Don’t Be Surprised if Utility Rates Double or Triple

And there’s the grid itself, which has neither the “capability nor capacity to add large amounts of renewables,” says Royal. Because California’s is already “one of America’s least-reliable electric grids,” according to energy writer Robert Bryce, “restricting the use of natural gas” means it will inevitably be subject to an increased demand for electricity, which will undermine its already shaky reliability. The clean energy transition will simply have to wait “until brand new grids are built,” says Royal.

Whether the transition goes as planned, or stalls as some expect, the process will be painful. “Rapid reductions in natural gas consumption,” says Bryce, “could cause rates to double or triple.”

One wonders how much the green zealots care about that, if they even care at all.

About the Author

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute. He wrote this exclusively for GV Wire.

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