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Renewables are not to blame for California blackouts

By STEFI WEISBURD

The Journal’s recent editorial using California’s blackouts to criticize our state’s progression toward carbon-free electricity production by 2045 does a great disservice to its readers by blaming the blackouts on California’s move toward renewables.

While the cause of the blackouts is still being investigated, the head of the California Independent System Operator, which controls the flow of most of California’s electricity, last week said the state’s added renewables had nothing to do with the blackouts.

California usually relies on 200 natural gas plants plus hydroelectric and other sources to supply electricity when the sun goes down. While the Journal argues for natural gas plants to increase reliability, it was actually several natural gas plants that tripped and went down unexpectedly, contributing to the drop in capacity. The cause of the plant shutdowns is not yet clear, although it is known that high ambient temperatures can cause a drop in gas plant efficiency.

Hydroelectric plants were operating below capacity that week because of low water levels, and the state was unable to purchase additional power from neighboring regions because these states were also suffering from high temperatures. The Journal also references California’s 2001 blackouts but fails to remind readers that these were caused entirely by Enron’s market manipulations and had nothing to do with any lack in the physical energy supply.

It is also worth noting that the peak demand in mid-August in California did not set a record. The grid there had handled more demand in the past without staging a blackout, and the blackouts were ordered this time when the operating reserves of power available to the utilities were around 8% – higher than the 3% guide usually used to trigger a blackout. This is another factor that has puzzled observers of the blackout decision.

The editorial quotes (California) Gov. (Gavin) Newsom saying he won’t sacrifice reliability. But his next sentence, which the Journal did not quote, was that California needs to meet this need for reliability in the face of record-breaking heat brought on by climate change by having a demand-response system. This means employing “smart grids” or automatic systems that better match demand to supply. …

It also means allowing a utility to buy energy from small plants – California only buys from big power generators – or even from customers who might have batteries in their house like a Tesla power wall. Parts of New Mexico’s grid are 100 years old. We could use a smart grid, too.

The Journal editors express doubts about future battery and energy storage development, which would provide power when solar cells predictably stop producing. I invite them to visit their neighbors – the national laboratories, New Mexico universities and entrepreneurs who are making great strides in this area every day. I invite them to support initiatives to modernize our aging power grid to make it smart and agile so it can automatically balance demand and supply and allow New Mexico, with its abundant sun and wind resources, to sell to other states.

Finally, the haze from Western fires that reduced solar cell output and the unprecedented heat that increased electricity demand while also reducing solar cell, hydroelectric and natural gas power plant efficiency are here to stay. It is only going to get hotter and drier and more prone to fires.

We cannot expect to air-condition our way comfortably into the future if we are powering those air conditioners with fossil fuel plants spewing carbon into the atmosphere, which is making the temperature even higher. Yes, editors, it is 100 degrees, and rising. But don’t blame renewables.

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