A timeline of the 2019 version of rolling blackouts goes like this:
On Oct. 4, San Diego Gas & Electric shut down power to about 400 customers east of the city. Five days later, Pacific Gas & Electric started deactivating 25,000 miles of lines serving more than 2 million customers in several counties. The numbers vary, but power was shut off in different places through the end of October.
Ostensibly, the blackouts were a response to California’s wildfire crisis, as high winds toppled trees and branches onto overhead power lines, one big cause of wildfires.
No electric power. Nagging wildfires menacing urban areas. Could California’s storied lifestyle be in greater danger?
The short, now-obvious answer is, yes, it can be. Now, the state’s powerful Public Utilities Commission has ordered California’s three major electric power providers to somehow secure another 3.3 gigawatts of reserve power supplies, with half of that extra power online by 2021, and the remainder by 2023.
On top of all that, PG&E — the state’s largest power supplier — entered bankruptcy earlier this year, and during PG&E’s wildfire-related blackouts last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested the possibility of the state taking over for the private company.
The PUC’s order for companies to add surplus power supply, and on relatively short notice, comes as those companies are struggling with the problems caused by tens of thousands of miles of overhead power lines, and the increasing infusion of solar power into the state’s power grid, forcing per-unit prices down to the point that companies can’t profit from the sale of electricity.
It is a mess of gigantic proportions in the for-profit private-sector energy industry, forcing them to retire gas-fired power plants, which regulators now understand could cause a sequel to the rolling blackouts from a couple of decades ago that compelled companies to build more power plants — which now may become obsolete.
The PUC mandate to providers for 3.3 gigawatts of surplus means they may be paying for surplus they don’t need and won’t use, digging deeper into the profits such private power companies rely on.
Wildfires are one very big problem for power companies, but so are the solar and wind farms sprouting across California, providing electric power for a fraction of the fossil-fuel method costs, thus making the power grid volatile and unpredictable. Further complicating the situation is the fact that the recent PUC order bans surplus fossil fuels from being used at any new power generators built to meet the requirement.
PG&E, which is already walking on eggshells because of its equipment’s role in wildfire destruction and its pending bankruptcy, reported it was pleased the PUC did not adopt an earlier proposal to require 4 gigawatts of additional resources. We’re not sure if there was sarcasm in that response, or just conciliation.
Striving for a seat at the table, environmental groups are calling on state regulators to abandon fossil fuels, period. The Sierra Club said the PUC’s surplus mandate “sets California back on its progress toward a clean energy future.”
And therein lies the real problem — what is California’s energy future? Nuclear power is disappearing. Fossil-fuel producers are under siege. Sustainable-energy sources are fighting an uphill battle against the oil industry. One might reasonably believe that, at some point, these disparate parts would come together on a unified plan.
Until that happens — and it likely won’t happen — perhaps the regional approach is the answer, as in the Central Coast cooperating on a strategy that results in electric power from the sun and wind.
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