Energy

How California's Environmental Mandates Led to Blackouts

Critics say the state's dependence on solar and wind have made the power grid unreliable and overly expensive.

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California's rolling blackouts this summer were caused by decades of costly and poorly planned decisions to replace coal, nuclear, and gas-powered plants with solar and wind, according to some energy experts.

"It speaks to the delusion of California policymakers," says Michael Shellenberger, the president of Environmental Progress, which advocates for greater reliance on nuclear power as a way to reduce CO2 emissions and provide reliable energy. "They really convinced themselves that they could manage all of this increased demand on renewables, which are fundamentally unreliable." 

California banned the construction of new nuclear reactors in 1976 and has been incentivizing companies to close older plants by piling on burdensome regulations ever since.

Shellenberger says this loss has made California more susceptible to blackouts.

"It would have just provided the energy that we didn't have," says Shellenberger. "The nuclear plant, unlike the solar farms or wind, is reliable like 92 percent of the year."

Policymakers also started closing natural gas plants because they produce more CO2 emissions than wind and solar, ignoring warnings that doing so would lead to energy shortages. On Wednesday, California's Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, signed an executive order asking the state legislature to ban fracking oil and gas, the latter of which provided a majority of the state's energy during the recent blackouts.

Critics of solar and wind energy say that renewables provide consistent energy only under optimal weather conditions.

But the main operator of California's grid says a lack of easily accessible backup energy, not renewables like wind and solar, were to blame for the blackouts.

"Renewables have not caused this issue. This is a resource issue, not a renewable issue," California Independent Systems Operator CEO Stephen Berberich said in an August 18 press briefing.

Some defenders of renewable energy even say that that fossil fuels are the real culprit and that critics like Shellenberger are distorting the facts in service of their preconceived biases

The August blackout, they point out, was directly caused by the failure of a natural gas generator.

"Those fossil fuel technologies have trouble performing in the heat," says energy analyst Amol Phadke. Phadke is the co-author of UC-Berkeley's 2035 Report, which argues that America should transition to 90 percent carbon-free energy generation in the next 15 years.

But the natural gas generator that failed was a backup system. It had been flipped on only because the state's energy capacity failed as the sun went down, the wind slowed, and Californians blasted their air conditioners to deal with a heat wave.

Still, Phadke insists that the real problem was a failure to adequately plan backup power.

"And in fact, I would argue that having a lot more renewable energy and storage would make the grid more robust," says Phadke.  

One additional factor is that as California has increased its reliance on renewable energy, it has also become increasingly reliant on energy imported from neighboring states, who failed to make up for the shortfall during the heatwave.

"Those neighbors need their power plants because they're hot, too," says engineer and investor Mark P. Mills, a faculty fellow at Northwestern University and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

He says that California's push to replace traditional power plants with renewables has created a shortage of what's known as "dispatchable capacity"—generators that can be flipped on where there's a spike in demand.

"What happened in the first blackouts is that they didn't have this dispatchable capacity and, worse than that, there was a wind lull," says Mills. "None of that would have happened if you're not losing conventional capacity. And the more wind you add, the less dispatchable you have, the more likely you'll have those events occur….It's just simple logic." 

Phadke thinks the solution is for California to build even more solar power plants and invest more money in giant batteries that can store power from the wind and sun during off hours.

"In the long run, if you have enough batteries to transfer that solar energy during the day into the evening hours, you are good," says Phadke. "And the good news is that the cost of those batteries has dropped by 90 percent since 2010."

While it's true that the cost of both solar panels and batteries has fallen dramatically in the past decade, Mills points out that the pace of that price decline has slowed, and he says manufacturers are likely approaching the physical limitations of solar energy conversion.

"The constant babbling about batteries is an embarrassing failure of arithmetic," says Mills. 

Mills has calculated that storing a barrel of oil's worth of energy in a battery costs at least 100 times as much as storing the oil and that it would take 1,000 years for the world's largest battery factory to produce enough to store two days' worth of America's energy needs.

"Batteries are never going to get cheaper to store energy than storing oil in a barrel," says Mills. "Until we develop a room-temperature superconductor." (If that happens, he says, "it changes the world.")

Mills also points out that the intensive mining required to produce batteries has a major environmental cost and, given the regulatory environment in America, would likely increase dependence on rare-earth minerals mined in Russia and China.

"The increase in mining that the green energy path will require will be the biggest increase in mineral extraction the world has ever seen," says Mills. "You may think that's fine, but it's a real cost that no one's counting. It's dishonest."

But the 2035 report estimates the cost of not quickly pivoting to renewables at $1.2 trillion in health and environmental damages and 85,000 premature deaths by 2050. It recommends a combination of emissions standards, government subsidies, and tax incentives to ramp up solar, wind, and battery production as quickly as possible.

Shellenberger says that nuclear would provide the clean and abundant energy that both sides want, if only California and other states would stop creating incentives for nuclear plants to close down and would allow new ones to open up.

"Just keeping the nuclear plants online would have kept prices down significantly," says Shellenberger. "My view is if California had a vision of being like France, 75 percent nuclear and our homes getting our cooking and heating from electricity, well, that could be a very good deal for both consumers and the natural environment, but nobody's talking about that." 

Mills says that the technological innovations that would be required to fulfill the environmentalists' dreams rely, ironically, on continuing to have abundant energy now.

"If you want to go from propellers to jet engines, if you want to go from combustion to nuclear fission…if you want to store electricity as cheaply as we store oil, you need a different, whole new solution," says Mills. "So you produce energy at the least possible cost to have as much profit to invest in basic science and invest in adaptation and resilience."

Shellenberger says the entire nation should view California as a cautionary tale, because its energy policy is the blueprint that some Democrats in Washington, D.C., want to follow.

"So if you are concerned about the blackouts, the sixfold increase in electricity prices above the [national average], if you're concerned about…bad management of our electrical grid that causes fires in places where we should have less fires…you should be concerned about what's happening in California and not want it to be imposed on the rest of the U.S." 

Produced by Zach Weissmueller; opening graphic by Lex Villena; additional graphics by Isaac Reese. 

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