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Green California Has the Nation’s Worst Power Grid

Steve Goreham's picture
Speaker, Author, and Researcher

 Steve Goreham is a speaker, author, and researcher on environmental issues and a former engineer and business executive.  He is a frequently invited guest on radio and television and a freelance...

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  • Aug 22, 2020 10:30 pm GMT
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Originally published in Washington Examiner.

More than a million Californians suffered power blackouts last Friday evening. When high temperatures caused customer demand to exceed the power available, California electrical utilities used rotating outages to force a reduction in demand. The California grid is the worst in the nation, with green energy policies pursued by the state likely furthering reduced grid reliability.  

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At 6:30 pm on Friday, Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s biggest utility, began shutting off power in rolling outages to force a reduction in demand. Southern California Edison also denied power to homes, beginning just before 7 pm. Shutoffs impacted a rotating group of up to two million customers until 11 pm.

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) declared a Stage 3 Electrical Emergency, the first Stage 3 emergency since 2001. Spot power electricity prices soared to over $1,000 per megawatt-hour, more than 10 times the usual price.

In 2018, 19 percent of California’s electricity came from roof-top and utility-scale solar installations, the highest percentage in the nation. But by 6:30 pm each day, that solar output approaches zero. The state lacks enough reliable electricity generation capacity to run the air conditioners during hot summer evenings.

California has the least reliable electrical power system in the US. It isn’t even close. According to data by Eaton Corporation, the state leads the US in power outages every year, with more than double the outages of any other state over the last decade.

The causes of power outages can be divided into four major groups, which in order of importance are weather or downed trees, faulty equipment or human errors, unknowns, and vehicle accidents. California suffered the largest number of outages in each category in each year for 2014 through 2017.

For more than a decade, California has been closing coal and nuclear power plants. Recently, the state also began closing natural gas-fired plants as part of a continuing effort to fight global warming.

In 2006, Senate Bill 1368 established California’s Emissions Performance Standard, an effort to reduce state greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Since 2007, 11 in-state, coal-fired plants have been closed as a result, with an additional 3 converted to biomass fuel. California also slashed imports of electricity generated from coal plants. The Argus Cogen plant in Trona is the last remaining coal plant.

California nuclear plants, though not emitters of greenhouse gases, are also being phased out. The second and third units of the San Onofre nuclear generating plant near Los Angeles ceased operation in 2013. The Diablo Canyon plant, the last nuclear plant in California, is scheduled for closure in 2025.

Driven by state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, gas-fired plants are also being shuttered. Natural gas generating capacity has fallen by more than 10 percent since 2013, with additional reductions planned.

Following the blackouts last Friday night, blackouts resumed at 6:30 pm on Saturday. Power officials blamed the loss of 1,000 megawatts of wind power when the wind subsided and the unexpected shutdown of a 470-megawatt power plant. It’s clear that the state does not have enough reliable baseload power as backup for intermittent wind and solar energy.

The problem of California’s poor electric reliability will likely get worse. On September 10, 2018, then Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 100, committing California to obtain 100 percent of its electricity from “clean energy sources” by 2045. Replacement of coal, nuclear, and natural gas generators with wind and solar will continue erode grid reliability.

As part of global warming efforts, officials want all citizens to switch their natural gas stoves and furnaces to electric models. More than 30 California cities have enacted bans on gas appliances, including the major cities of San Francisco and San Jose. Almost 10 percent of the state population now lives in an area covered by restrictions against gas appliances in new residential construction.

California also wants residents to transition from gasoline- and diesel-powered cars and trucks to plug-in electric models. So, when those blackouts occur in the future, not only will your lights and air conditioners fail, but you won’t be able to cook your food or drive your car either.

California sacrificed reliable electrical power on the altar of the fight against global warming. There is no evidence that state efforts will have the slightest effect on global temperatures, but they will be great for candle and flashlight sales.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 23, 2020

"There is no evidence that state efforts will have the slightest effect on global temperatures..."

Steve, though it's impossible to have evidence of something that hasn't occurred yet, there's plenty of evidence that average global temperature increases exponentially as the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere increases, as Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius predicted it would over 100 years ago:

This is basic physics - there is no controversy about the phenomenon. California emits ~44 MT of CO2 each year; total global CO2 from fossil fuel sources increases by ~37,000 MT. Granted, California's contribution wouldn't be a lot, but it adds up.

Whether California has lowered its emissions at all is another thing - in truth, no one knows. Utilities are allowed to attribute up to 30% of their carbon emissions to "unspecified sources", and It's generally assumed unspecified sources are carbon-emitters. Renewables are always acknowledged as part of a utility's generations mix, because they help meet utilities' renewable electricity obligation under SB-100.

So California's "green" accomplishments are indeed a sham, and it's not even because there isn't enough in-state capacity - it's due to gas transmission constraints. The 470 MW plant that shut down on 8/14 was attempting to keep up with increasing demand, as the sun set, when it ran out of gas.

This is the pickle in which California energy planners find themselves after the shutdown of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. A few more disastrous weekends like the last should force Gov. Newsom to reconsider closing Diablo Canyon. If not, things will only get worse.

Steve Goreham's picture
Steve Goreham on Aug 24, 2020

Hi Bob.  I hope you are well.  Thanks for your usual excellent comment.

However, the situation is not nearly as simple as the equation you provided.  Water vapor, not carbon dioxide, is Earth's dominant greenhouse gas.  Water vapor is responsible for 75 to 90 percent of Earth's greenhouse effect.  Of the small remaining portion caused by CO2 (and a tiny bit by methane), natural emissions of CO2 from oceans and the biosphere dwarf human emissions.  Each day, nature puts twenty times as much CO2 into Earth's atmosphere as all of human industry and removes about the same amount.  Summed together, human emissions of CO2 are responsible for only about 1-2 percent of Earth's greenhouse effect.

If one looks at the radiation spectrum of outgoing radiation from Earth's surface, one finds that atmospheric absorption of infrared radiation by water vapor and existing CO2 is already saturated.  Doubling of atmospheric CO2, whether from human or natural causes, will provide only a negligible change to the infrared absorption spectrum.

California's efforts will have no measurable effect on global temperatures, but will continue to raise energy prices for citizens and may continue to destabilize the grid.

Please refer to my three books on climate change and energy for further information. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=steve+goreham&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss_1

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 25, 2020

Steve, the CO2 put into the Earth's atmosphere by "nature" is carbon cycling between the terrestrial, marine, and atmospheric reservoirs of the carbon biocycle. It has been, except for a tiny amount of CO2 from volcanic activity and natural fossil fuel seepage, part of that cycle since millions of years before humans evolved during the Holocene Period.

Since ~1800, carbon extracted from the sedimentary reservoir of the carbon biocycle - so-called "fossil fuel" -  is approximately the same molar quantity as the total of all extant carbon in its other three reservoirs before 1800. It has raised the Earth's temperature by about 1°C , and atmospheric CO2 concentration by 69%.

Re: water vapor:

"It’s true that water vapor is the largest contributor to the Earth’s greenhouse effect. On average, it probably accounts for about 60% of the warming effect. However, water vapor does not control the Earth’s temperature, but is instead controlled by the temperature."

"The greenhouse effect that has maintained the Earth’s temperature at a level warm enough for human civilization to develop over the past several millennia is controlled by non-condensable gases, mainly carbon dioxide, CO2, with smaller contributions from methane, CH4, nitrous oxide, N2O, and ozone, O3."

"If there had been no increase in the amounts of non-condensable greenhouse gases, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere would not have changed with all other variables remaining the same."

Hence, added water vapor is a product of climate change from burning fossil fuels, not a cause of it. Take away extra fossil CO2, and all extra water vapor would rain back down into the oceans.

Steve Goreham's picture
Steve Goreham on Aug 25, 2020

Bob,

Your analysis is one that many believe, but does not meet the common-sense test.  Think about it for a moment.  You state that trace gases are controlling Earth's water cycle and therefore Earth's climate. Only 4 of every 10,000 molecules in Earth's atmosphere are carbon dioxide. At most, human industry is responsible for a fraction of one of those 10,000 molecules. 

Earth's water cycle is huge.  It consists of the oceans, the icecaps, clouds, and weather.  It encompasses forces that are orders of magnitude greater than the forces of the carbon dioxide cycle.  To say that the tiny carbon cycle is controlling Earth's water cycle is a flea-wagging-the-dog theory and not very likely.

In any case, we will learn the truth in a decade or so.  There is no evidence that society can control global temperatures by regulating CO2 emissions.  But the evidence is large and growing that CO2 control measures are costly and counterproductive, as in the case of California.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 28, 2020

Steve, honestly I don't assign a lot of credence to "common sense". If thirty years ago someone had taken me to a room, closed the door, then told me an invisible gas wasn't allowing radiative heat energy to escape the Earth's atmosphere, that there would be no more ice at the North Pole in 2020, I would have been eyeing the room for alternate escape routes.

Since, I've learned not to trust my own "common sense" or anyone else's. I read a lot of scientific papers, and I've learned how some authors use confirmation bias to pat themselves on the back - to allow common sense to influence conclusions in a paper where few are justified. Whether it's to support ideological leanings, career advancement, or advance any other agenda hardly matters.

"In any case, we will learn the truth in a decade or so.  There is no evidence that society can control global temperatures by regulating CO2 emissions."

It was 1988 when climate scientist James Hansen told a Senate subcommittee he was 99% certain natural variation was not the cause of global warming, a phenomenon that had been universally acknowledged. Since, he has been both hailed as a visionary and disimissed as a quack - but evidence has confirmed, in every significant detail, his conclusion: that people were causing global warming, and ultimately, their combustion of fossil fuels was to blame. We've already learned the truth.

Whether we can control fossil fuel emissions is a separate issue. But given historical evidence suggests accelerated changes to climate will last at least 100,000 years and result in a mass extinction unseen for 60 million years, I hope we can control them..

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 28, 2020

 If thirty years ago someone had taken me to a room, closed the door, then told me an invisible gas wasn't allowing radiative heat energy to escape the Earth's atmosphere, that there would be no more ice at the North Pole in 2020, I would have been eyeing the room for alternate escape routes.

Here's the real question-- how do we get the remaining people who don't want to do the work to read scientific papers (or at the very least listen to experts and scientists who will read those papers for them) to stay in that room today, all these years later?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 28, 2020

In my opinion, Matt, it's most important to prioritize science over economics.

I continue to believe it's possible to think of a solution to climate change, but we'll never, ever be able to buy one.

Economics rewards consumption, and consumption is climate change's best friend.

Richard McCann's picture
Richard McCann on Aug 27, 2020

This article is a disingenuous misuse of statistics. It uses outage data that is dominated by at least 99% distribution and transmission system outages and then launches into a discussion about how generation shortfalls might cause outages. Differences in generation mix do NOT explain ANY of the differences in outage rates among states--its entirely driven by differences in distribution and transmission system characteristics and maintenance. Moving toward clean energy has NO impact on these differences. 

Further, it's not clear what outage data is being used here. The outage data should include major events, which can more than triple the outage rate for states in the Southeast.

Also, I can't find supporting data that supports what shown here. This EIA data doesn't show California in the top 5 (I didn't dig into the supporting spreadsheets): https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=35652

And this chart shows California 7th out of 10 states (without a description why those 10 states): https://www.statista.com/statistics/1078447/average-blackouts-duration-b...

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Aug 31, 2020

Thanks Richard. May I ask you to please show the graph from which you quote with some of the explanation from the article? I cannot access it (for free) on the site you reference. (But don´t get yourself into copyright trouble though.)

I certainly take your point regarding the use of statistics and the causes of outages ("The causes of power outages can be divided into four major groups, which in order of importance are weather or downed trees, faulty equipment or human errors, unknowns, and vehicle accidents.") Of course, it may not be a complete stretch to argue that more generated power in more places could soften some of the blows of weaknesses in the grid, human error, etc.  But that is only a guess.

Richard McCann's picture
Richard McCann on Sep 1, 2020

You should be able to easily see the EIA graph. It's a free government site. (And it has the best data available.) You should download the associated file to see where California ranks in the outage data. (I can't paste graphics here.)

The Statista chart I found by simply running a Google search. I have doubts about the veracity of the Eaton data given its inconsistency with outage data that I've been monitoring for several decades.

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