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California's blackouts present an example of what not to do

California's blackouts present an example of what not to do
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Two weeks ago, millions of Californians faced hours-long electricity blackouts for several days. This wasn’t an accident, though — there weren’t any trees falling on wires, and there were no wildfires jeopardizing power plants. The reality? California did this to itself. The state’s recent energy woes are the result of policies that have put them in a precarious place, and the rest of the country should pay attention.

The cause of California’s problem was simple: There wasn’t enough electricity to meet everyone’s needs. With more people staying indoors to avoid the coronavirus and a heat wave sweeping the region, electricity demand spiked.

Right now, California relies on wind and solar power for roughly a third of its electricity. Just when people needed electricity the most, the sun stopped shining, the wind stopped blowing — and over 1,200 megawatts of electricity suddenly became unavailable. Admittedly, some of this shortage was due to an unexpected malfunction in some natural gas plants, but much of it was from wind and solar going M.I.A. 

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Since the sun sets each day, this was expected for solar power. Every night, the disappearing sun takes with it thousands of megawatts of electricity, and it’s a problem that solar plants in California have had for years. Of course, the state has always been able to force other plants to ramp up production quickly to compensate. It’s an expensive strain on the entire system, but it gets consumers through the night. And, in this case, the wind that usually blows through the night simply stopped blowing, removing 1,000 megawatts of electricity — enough to power nearly a million homes.

Here’s the rub: Neither the setting sun nor the calm weather would have been a problem if the state had had sufficient backup power. Wind and solar power, because they depend on the weather, must be backed up by reliable power sources. However, California has spent years closing the very plants capable of backing up and accommodating this variability. 

In 2013, California closed a nuclear plant that generated over 2,000 megawatts of emissions-free electricity. This is enough power that, were the plant still running today, the recent blackout wouldn’t have happened. In the same time span, California lost over 6,000 megawatts of natural gas-fired electricity — over four times the shortfall that triggered the blackout. Natural gas plants are unique in their importance to the modern grid in that they can alter electricity generation quickly to accommodate fluctuations in wind and solar energy output. 

California regulators are doubling down on these closures instead of wisely understanding that, without reliable backup power, wind and solar are a liability for a stable grid. They’re going to close the state’s last remaining nuclear power plant in 2025, taking even more reliable, emissions-free power out of the equation.

According to California’s grid operators, these developments risked the collapse of California’s entire electric grid, and, since the state’s grid is connected to numerous other states as well, the electric grid of the whole Western United States would be in danger, too.

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Roughly one-quarter of California’s electricity comes from utilities in other states. But in the midst of the heat wave, those utilities’ electricity stayed closer to their primary customers. Many other states also faced increased electricity demand from the heat wave, but, since they weren’t as reliant on imports or wind and solar power as California, they didn’t have to shut the power off.

California’s electric grid operator predicted that the state’s overdependence on solar and wind, its closure of reliable power plants, and its reliance on energy imports from other states would lead to blackouts in the face of increased electricity demand from a heat wave. Those predictions were met early, but another California policy seems poised to make such blackouts even more frequent. The state’s rush to “electrify everything” will significantly raise electricity demand, as more facets of life — from household appliances to vehicles — will go on the grid. 

So in the next blackout, more than just air conditioning will fail.

Other states have to do better. Wind and solar power are useful to only a point, and their reliance on cooperative weather makes them unfit to serve as a main power source. Shutting down reliable nuclear and natural gas power plants isn’t the answer, and doing so while deliberately raising electricity demand is a recipe for disaster. States looking to mimic California should take stock of the blackouts, because California’s green new normal isn’t the normal they’re going to want.

Jakob Puckett is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute and an associate contributor for Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @jakobrpuckett.