The phrase “going green” is supposed to evoke images of bright, clear and clean skies; lush vegetation; the efficient and effective use of resources; and cheap, non-polluting energy. Yet it produces more darkness than light.
With the arrival of intense summer heat came a reminder from the California Independent System Operator that the state’s power grid is more Third World than modern wonder. On June 18, the ISO tweeted an illustrated list of energy-saving tips that included the suggestion that Californians could, according to Newsweek, “relieve pressure on the grid by charging their electric vehicles before the peak energy use times of day.”
Or as one of the ZeroHedge bloggers phrased it, “California begs residents to change their EV charging routines.”
“It appears as though California’s plans to become an environmental and socialist utopia are running face first into reality,” he continued. “The latest dose of reality came this week when the state, facing triple digit temperatures, began to ‘fret’ about pressure on the state’s power grid as a result of everybody charging their electric vehicles all at once.”
So far this year, the ISO has issued a pair of flex alerts, in which it asks “consumers to voluntarily conserve energy when demand for power could outstrip supply.” There was nearly another this earlier this week. The ISO backed off its threat Sunday, yet we know what to expect for the rest of the summer – further warnings, appeals to conserve, and, eventually, back-to-nature power-free hours.
As California plods and clunks its way to a mandated carbon-free energy zone, the power grid becomes more unreliable. After issuing 26 flex alerts in 2001, the year of an avoidable, man-made energy crisis in the state, and 18 in 2006, the grid operator had not posted more than six (in 2007) in any given year through 2019. In most years, there were one or two, and twice, 2009 and 2010, there were none.
Then last year, five were issued.
2020 also had six stage-two emergencies and two stage-three emergencies, the most since 2001.
It was, as well, the year in which former Gov. Jerry Brown tweeted “Hey California! We can avoid a blackout, but you have to turn up your damn thermostat!” and the current occupant of that office pleaded for everyone “to do their part to conserve energy and help avoid power outages today!”
“Turn off unnecessary lights, avoid use of major appliances, and set your A/C at 78 degrees or higher,” Gavin Newsom demanded.
It’s alarming that the nagging is acceptable in what is (we once thought) the most modern state in the most modern country in the most modern era in the history of mankind. Why aren’t voters demanding that policymakers fix the problem they created rather than scold Californians as if they were unruly children?
To get a clearer understanding of what’s happening, it’s helpful to look at the state’s electricity source mix over the years. In 2009, 42% of the power used in California was produced by cheap and reliable natural gas. This includes electricity generated in the state and electricity imported from other states. Five years later, 44.5% was produced by natural gas. By 2019, though, the portion had fallen to 34.9%, according to California Energy Commission data.
Nuclear power, reliable and clean, fell from 13.1% of the portfolio in 2009 to 9% in 2019. It will soon be zero after the state’s last working nuclear facility, the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County, shuts down in the next few years.
Meanwhile, renewables, led by unreliable wind and solar, provided 12% of the state’s power in 2009. By 2019, 31.7% of electricity in California was generated by renewable sources (nearly half of it from large hydroelectric sources, abundant in California, that will eventually be taken out of the mix for the simple (and uncompelling) reason that Big Green does not like big dams).
Natural gas, coal, nuclear, and large hydro will no longer produce power in California in 2045 and beyond due to a mandate handed down by Sacramento. Will renewables then be able to keep up with the demand, which will increase sharply because the governor wants to flood the streets with electric vehicles and has ordered it so?
Given that the current portfolio of sources struggles to meet demand, it seems unlikely. The advances in electricity storage technology needed to avoid a future of flex alerts and blackouts just aren’t available. The big leaps in progress in boosting battery power have been mostly squeezed out already. Improvements will come in far smaller increments from now on.
Building enough infrastructure, primarily wind and solar farms, both of them land gluttons, presents an additional obstacle that doesn’t get enough attention.
If all this means millions of EVs will be sitting idle with dead batteries 10 or 15 years from now due to blackouts that rolled around because the grid couldn’t keep up, then that’s just the payoff of California politics. At least traffic will be better.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.