To Avoid Blackouts, California May Turn to Fossil Fuels

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Looking to avoid power blackouts, California may turn to the one energy source it’s otherwise desperate to get rid of: fossil fuels.

The Governor has made a bold energy proposal. Gavin Newsom signed Thursday puts the state in the business of buying power to ensure there’s enough to go around during heat waves that strain the grid. But some critics say the method of getting there is at odds with the state’s broader climate goals, because it paves the way for the state to tap aging gas-fired power plants and add backup generators fueled by diesel.

This debate is a reminder of the challenges faced by some countries as they try to combat heat waves caused by climate change.

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California gets most of its energy from renewable sources during the day, but doesn’t yet have the storage to dispatch enough solar power after the sun goes down. By removing local governments’ from permit decisions, the bill seeks to accelerate renewable energy construction and storage. Building is also being slowed down by supply chain issues.

Democratic State Senator Dave Min pointed out the difficult situation the state finds itself in, where it may be required to use fossil fuels as well as their planet-warming emissions for heat wave mitigation.

“That’s the obvious conundrum that we’re in,” said Min, who represents Huntington Beach, a coastal community home to a gas-fired power plant.

The problem isn’t unique to California. A coal-fired power station in New Mexico was scheduled to shut down its two last units on Thursday. A major utility requested that the state keep the one remaining unit open until September in order to satisfy summer demand. This is because solar and battery storage projects meant to replace this lost capacity were delayed.

State energy officials warned earlier this year that the state risks an energy shortfall equivalent to what it takes to power 1.3 million homes on the summer’s hottest days. Newsom and lawmakers are desperate to avoid a scenario like August 2020, when hundreds of thousands of people temporarily lost power because there wasn’t enough supply to go around.

Newsom’s solution centers on creating a “strategic reliability reserve” run by the Department of Water Resources. The water agency has been given that role because it is a major producer and user of power through its dams and operation of the state’s water pumping system. If utilities need to purchase additional power or add temporary generators powered by fossil fuels, this summer the department may reimburse them. Any diesel-powered generators couldn’t be used past 2023.

The water department could also build energy storage facilities and zero emission generating stations. The state could spend money to buy power from the coastal gas-fired plant that is due to shut down in 2023. They were originally scheduled to close in 2020. Likewise the department could keep buying power from the state’s last remaining nuclear plant if it stays open beyond its 2025 closure.

Newsom said in a signing statement that he would direct state agencies to “ensure clean energy resources are prioritized over fossil fuels.”

Sen. Henry Stern, a Democrat from Los Angeles County, said while the bill doesn’t allow for the extension of fossil fuel plants, its a question lawmakers will have to address.

“What this bill is doing is buying time,” he said.

Republican senator Shannon Grove from Bakersfield said that the bill proves California’s need for oil and gas.

“If we don’t have these gas-powered plants to fire up when we need them you will not be able to flip the switch and get electricity,” she said.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, said the state wouldn’t need to rely on fossil fuels as a backup if it had moved faster to build up renewable resources and expressed concern that the bill doesn’t put enough guardrails on the water department’s power. The department would not have to comply with California’s landmark environmental law to move forward with new projects.

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“The state is saying we need to rely on fossil power and they’re not fully admitting that it’s because of this lack of ambition,” said Alexis Sutterman, energy equity manager for the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

Andrew Campbell, executive director of the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said the water department’s new authority to buy power is “very expansive and open ended” and something that “really deserves scrutiny.”

According to him, California will likely be at the forefront in a problem that will most likely hit other U.S. States as they transition away from fossil fuels, and increase how much energy they get from the grid.

“Developing an electrical system that is very clean and doing that reliably is a challenge that hasn’t been solved anywhere,” he said. “And California, because it’s so far along with renewable energy development, is hitting that challenge sooner than some other places.”

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