When The Lights Go Out In California
When Sacramento unwisely decided that 100% of retail electricity sales in the state would have to be generated by renewable sources by 2045, most reasonable people would have thought that hydroelectric power would be included in the portfolio.
But it seems the policymakers in Sacramento might not be altogether reasonable.
Senate Bill 100, the legislation passed and signed last year that requires the change to renewables, does not directly list hydroelectric power as a renewable source. What is acceptable and what isn’t are fine-print items that remain unresolved.
But don’t expect hydroelectric power to be considered a renewable source when renewables are ultimately defined. Lawmakers have tipped their hand on this. Legislation introduced in the current session by Sen. Anna Caballero, a Salinas Democrat, that would have ensured that electricity generated by the Don Pedro Hydroelectric Project east of Modesto could be used to meet the state’s 2045 requirement has been rejected, at least for now. Senate Bill 386 was recently returned to committee “and branded as a two-year bill, which gives Caballero the option of bringing it up again next year,” the Mercury News reported earlier this month.
This makes no sense to the rational mind.
Environmental activists, a potent political force in Sacramento, oppose hydropower, though it’s categorically a renewable source. Their complaints? “Damming rivers permanently disrupts the balance of ecosystems, displacing people and animals,” says the Sierra Club, well summarizing the eco-opposition.
Do the activists think that building a sprawling solar farm that displaces desert tortoises and roast thousands of birds a year, or erecting aesthetically loathsome wind farms that chop up hundreds of thousands of winged creatures annually don’t disrupt the “balance of ecosystems”?
David Henderson, an economist who lives near Caballero’s district, believes “these interest groups have decided that the way to meet the renewable energy goal is to have more solar and wind power” even if hydropower, which generated a significant portion — 21% — of the state’s electricity in 2017, is a less-costly source.
“They are set on their solution. Notice that that means that they don’t really want renewable energy,” Henderson writes in the Library of Economics and Liberty. “They want solar and wind.”
Which means they want Californians living with less energy, because reaching 100% renewables by 2045 isn’t likely to happen by relying solely on solar and wind — unless there’s an extraordinary technological breakthrough in the coming years that sharply increases energy storage. As has been noted many times, the wind doesn’t always blow, nor does the sun always shine, and these natural cycles affect energy production.
Being able to store the renewable energy when the sun and wind come and discharge it when they go smooths out the steep swings (in production).
We have the storage technology to smooth out hourly swings, but we still don’t have anything that could cover a fallow period of wind and sun that lasted days, months, or even years. If we want to get variable renewable energy up to 60%, 80%, or even more of our electricity, we need long-term energy storage. It is the missing puzzle piece, the holy grail.
While hydropower is “a far more significant source of U.S. electricity than trendy technologies such as wind, sun, and heat from the Earth — combined,” according to Power magazine, its benefits extend beyond electricity generation.
“Hydro has other attributes not associated with the au courant crowd of renewables. Hydro projects can provide flood control, drinking water, and recreational opportunities. It even can increase property values: Folks often pay a premium to live around hydro impoundments but often take a hit living near wind and solar energy farms,” writes Power contributor Kennedy Maize.
None of this matters to environmental absolutists. Neither does the possibility that if the state is fully dependent on renewables by 2045 and after, there might not be enough energy to keep all the lights on all the time, especially if everyone is forced to drive electric vehicles five years prior to that.
But then environmentalism is no longer about the environment (if it were, nuclear power would be at the top of the environmentalists’ list of renewable sources). It’s about being in control of society and commanding the economy. The opposition to hydropower is clear evidence that the charge is true.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow at the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.