by Dr. Donald R. van der Vaart
Former Secretary, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
Last summer California suffered two days of rolling blackouts because the customers’ needs for electricity exceeded the California power system’s ability to generate electricity. Such a thing should never happen. The California Utilities Commission recently published a report explaining what happened and why.
North Carolinians should know that many of the energy policies Gov. Roy Cooper has advocated for here in North Carolina follow the mistakes identified as the cause of California’s blackouts. As in California, these missteps will leave North Carolina unprepared for our energy future and will ultimately lead to blackouts here. North Carolina should not repeat California’s mistakes.
The job of providing stable electricity to the consumer can be complicated, but this much is pretty simple: enough electricity must always be generated to meet the demand. The United States has developed one of the world’s finest electricity systems. Its costs are among the lowest, and its reliability is among the highest. What happened to California? What bad energy decisions were made over the years in California resulting in rolling blackouts?
According to the “Root Cause Analysis” published by California Independent System Operator, the California Public Utilities Commission, and the California Energy Commission, here are the factors that led to the outages:
The first point is simply climate-denying. Temperatures creeping upwards shouldn’t surprise anyone, but they are going up very slowly. This point is like complaining about being run over by a pavement roller.
Also, when the heat wave arrived in August 2020, the temperatures were high, but they only broke records in some cities. Had the system operators looked back more than 35 years, they would have seen that higher temperatures had been recorded, so they should have been prepared.
The third point refers to the State’s program to anticipate and prepare for heavy loads by reducing demand by customers. It failed.
But the second point is the important one. What does it mean that their dispatchable generating capacity hadn’t kept pace with the state’s needs? Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) explained that the transition away from natural gas (dispatchable generating capacity) and towards renewable sources (not dispatchable) led to “gaps” in their ability to provide electricity. He was pointing out the obvious: California built solar and wind plants without the necessary backup plants that could be dispatched.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson, vice chairman of the Utilities Committee in the California General Assembly, was more blunt about it:
“You can’t run a 21st century economy that’s the fifth-largest on the planet with wind and solar,” he said Monday. … “I have been warning over and over again that the policies coming out of the Democrat-controlled legislature and governor’s office are creating the conditions for blackouts and brownouts, and here we are seeing the evidence.”
Patterson is exactly right, although plenty of Republicans fail to see the insanity of these policies. Here is what Patterson understands about nondispatchable sources like wind and solar.
Traditionally, electricity generating systems comprised various individual sources of electricity that could be turned off and on as needed to meet the electricity demand of the public. These “dispatchable” energy sources included coal, oil, and natural gas combustion plants, nuclear plants, and to a lesser degree, hydropower plants. As long as sufficient reserves were available, increasing consumer electricity demand (or usage) could always be met by turning on (i.e., dispatching) another source.
Concern about global warming led policymakers to seek ways of replacing fossil-fueled generators with other sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide or methane. They didn’t pursue more nuclear power, however, even though it is highly dispatchable with zero emissions. Instead, politicians embraced nondispatchable forms of electricity like wind and solar. Engineers warned them that intermittent sources like solar and wind could not provide the reliability consumers want and expect, but strong lobbying efforts pushed the intermittent energy agenda through legislation. Instead, California, North Carolina, and many other states passed “Renewable Portfolio Standards.” The “portfolio” in the law’s name refers to the mix of power sources comprising retail electricity sales. These laws force the utilities to build and buy electricity from intermittent sources.
California is a leader in this misguided approach. Beginning in the 1990s, California began to shut down its coal and oil plants. Later it began to shut down its baseload gas plants, and by 2024 California will shut down its fifth and last remaining nuclear facility. Replacing these existing sources with new solar and wind plants costs a lot of money and makes lobbyists very happy.
Retail customers are not so happy, especially not poor families. California’s retail electricity prices are already among the highest in the nation, while its per-capita usage is the smallest in the country. California’s poverty is worst in the nation, and it’s approaching 20 percent now. Studies have shown that California’s higher energy prices are leading to higher poverty rates. But the proponents of nondispatchable energy sources do not seem to care.
Cooper is steering North Carolina in the same direction. He opposes building new natural gas pipelines while pushing for more solar plants, which need natural gas backup. Is this where we want North Carolina to go? Do we want more poverty? Do we want the poorest having to pay more of their monthly income for electricity? Do we want rolling blackouts?
Shouldn’t we learn from California’s mistakes instead and keep natural gas plants supplied with gas while we build more nuclear power?