California has been on the forefront of transitioning to more renewable energy. Thirty-three percent of the state’s electricity comes from renewable sources. But the heatwave that’s hitting the Western United States is posing a challenge for California’s energy grid.
Rolling blackouts have affected hundreds of thousands of Californians the past few weeks. Here’s something not obvious about the term “blackout:” It’s not just the lights that are out. Critically, it’s the HVAC systems, too. Summer blackouts are hot. This puts residents’ health at risk due to excessive heat exposure and further challenges all those working from home during this pandemic. All of this is due to an overly-aggressive push in the state to increase renewable energy dependency, despite not having the technology to make it reliable for Californian residents.
The blackouts are the result of a difficult-to-manage power grid. In the evening, as the heat peaks and people come home from work, people turn on their air conditioning and other devices. Throughout the state, electricity demand surges just in time for the sun to set and solar power to stop, reducing the amount of state-generated energy available.
This is an extreme example of the difficulties posed by the intermittent nature of many renewable energy sources. California usually can make up for the lost solar power by importing electricity from other Western states, as well as by using energy generated at the natural gas-fired power plants in California. But with the heat wave hitting across the Western US, other states have less excess power to help California make up the deficit.
What makes this difficult situation most frustrating is that these blackouts were foreseen: Despite warnings from top officials at California’s power grid last year that blackouts were inevitable if a heat wave hit the Western United States, California did not make any change to their energy source structure to prepare for this eventuality.
Moreover, while California has prioritized increasing their renewable energy sources in recent years, it has been making it harder to succeed by discouraging the use of another source of carbon-neutral energy: nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power is often overlooked in discussions about renewable energy sources, as people usually focus on wind, solar, and water. But nuclear power has an important role to play as a very reliable and efficient source of carbon-neutral energy. It doesn’t face the same challenges with intermittency and storage as other clean energy sources, and, when done responsibly, can be a very safe and efficient source of power. Unfortunately, in 2018, California state regulators agreed to close the last nuclear energy power plant in the state. The Diablo Canyon plant currently generates power for 1.7 million homes, making up almost 9 percent of in-state electricity production without emitting greenhouse gases. It is set to stop providing this power in 2024.
If California is already unable to manage the state’s energy needs during a heat wave when Diablo Canyon is still running, imagine the difficulties they’ll face once it closes down.
California should reconsider its approach to the laudable goal of reducing carbon emissions and using more clean energy. Clean energy is increasingly efficient and reliable, and will become more so as technology, and particularly battery storage, improves. However, California’s rush to force the state to rely on renewable energy--and especially to discourage the use of nuclear power--threats this progress. California’s have long faced sky-high energy costs because of the push to force a reliance on select renewable energy sources. Now, people faced with blackouts and the very real harms they cause are likely to become frustrated and demand new energy policies.
Mandates that push states to depend on energy sources that are not yet reliable and capable of meeting people’s needs are dangerous and counterproductive in terms of long-term improvements to the environment. America has become a leader in reducing carbon emissions because of our ability to innovate. We need to continue to encourage the research and development of more efficient and effective clean technology systems. This process, not government dictates, is what will assure that we continue to improve the environment and keep our planet healthy, but without sacrificing the safety and well-being of people alive today.
Charlotte Whelan is a policy analyst at Independent Women's Forum and member of the Steamboat Institute's Emerging Leaders Advisory Council.