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Natural Gas Is a Major Part Of the Solution To California’s Energy Crisis

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California is once again struggling with an energy supply crisis, causing the state to look to natural gas power generation facilities to try to prevent blackouts and brownouts. As Politico recently reported, ”California scorns fossil fuel but can’t keep the lights on without it.”

Officials have warned that up to 3.75 million homes – about 26 percent of California’s 14.21 million homes –  could lose power due to heat waves and meager energy supplies this summer. In an attempt to prevent this from happening, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) recently passed a bill setting aside millions of dollars to buy power from fossil fuel plants, explaining:

“Action is needed now to maintain reliable energy service as the State accelerates the transition to clean energy.”

The legislation will give California’s Dept. of Water Resources $2.2 million that can be spent on things like emergency generators “and funding on extension of existing generation operations, if any occur,” according to the governor. Opponents of the legislation have expressed concerns that it could expand the life of natural gas power plants that the state has been trying to close for years.

But the reality is that the rush to sideline in-state energy production has created a fragile grid that has the potential to leave Californians experiencing blackouts as the state rushes to be carbon neutral. Gov. Newsom’s signing of the bill certifies that even in states with extensive renewable infrastructure there’s still a need for reliable and adequate alternative sources of energy. As the state is quickly learning, without such back-up and redundancy measures, Californians could find themselves without necessary power.

A Recurring Problem

California blackouts will likely continue through 2025 as energy resources remain in short supply, according to Bloomberg. Blackouts are most common during the evening when solar energy is no longer viable, but high temperatures require high overnight air conditioning demand, which contributes to increased grid strain. In the summer of 2022 alone, it is predicted that there will be a gap of 1,700 megawatts – the power required for 1.3 million homes or 9 percent of the state’s homes.

Unfortunately, poor energy policies have made sure that Californians are no strangers to blackouts. In the summer of 2020, California experienced a series of rolling blackouts that left millions without power during the middle of a pandemic. This was the first time in almost 20 years that this happened and was a direct result of the state’s transition away from fossil fuel power generation without consideration of how it might affect the grid while relying on energy imports to supply the energy shortfall.

The same situation was narrowly avoided last summer due to new demand response programs. Demand response programs, like California’s Emergency Load Reduction Program, work by paying consumers to reduce energy consumption or increase electricity supply during grid emergencies. The system is triggered when the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) declares a grid emergency and is a part of a 5-year pilot program. In 2021, it was used 4 times and contributed to grid stability during the emergency events. However, the program is entirely voluntary and cannot guarantee its ability to manage energy demands to avoid blackouts.

A Simple Solution

Natural gas is a major part of the solution to reliable power across the state and is why Gov. Newsom has authorized California to buy power from fossil fuel plants that are scheduled to be shut down starting next year. The state imported 10 percent of its total electricity in 2021 from out-of-state natural gas generators to meet its demand.

Year Fuel Type California In-State Generation (GWh) Percent of California In-State Generation Northwest Imports (GWh) Southwest Imports (GWh) Total Imports (GWh) Percent of Imports Total California Energy Mix (GWh) Total California Power Mix
2021 Natural Gas 97431 50.2% 45 7880 7925 9.50% 105356 37.90%
2020 Natural Gas 92298 48.35% 70 8654 8724 10.68% 101022 27.06%
2019 Natural Gas 86136 42.97% 62 8859 8921 11.55% 95057 34.23%
2018 Natural Gas 90691 46.54% 49 8904 8953 9.40% 99644 34.91%
2017 Natural Gas 89564 43.4% 46 8705 8751 10.20% 98315 33.67%
2016 Natural Gas 98831 49.86% 41 7120 7161 7.75% 105992 36.48%
2015 Natural Gas 117490 59.9% 49 12211 12260 12.30% 129750 44%

Source: California Energy Commission

California broke records in May 2022 by operating a grid that ran on all renewables for a brief period of time, but residents still needed power when the sun went down and renewable capacity dropped. As NPR reported:

“On a mild Sunday afternoon, California set a historic milestone in the quest for clean energy. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing and on May 8th, the state produced enough renewable electricity to meet 103 percent of consumer demand. That broke a record set a week earlier of 99.9 percent.

“Energy experts say the falling records are a sign of the remarkable progress that renewable energy has made. But that doesn’t mean fossil fuels were out of the picture.

“Even as the record was broken, natural gas power plants were still running in California.

“Because despite the dramatic growth of renewable energy, turning off natural gas power still isn’t possible in California. The reason is due to a tricky time of day: when the sun sets and solar farms stop producing. California needs to replace that power quickly and seamlessly with other sources, like hydropower and natural gas.” (emphasis added)

Natural gas is complementary to renewables, and the two can be paired together to supply energy in the most environmentally responsible manner possible. Natural gas’ flexibility allows it to complement the intermittency of renewable energy. Natural gas also offers advantages when it comes to reliability and safety.

From 2011 to 2018, 144 natural gas power plants have been shut down although some cities, like Glendale, are trying to reverse this trend because the recognize the need for increased energy availability. Glendale proposed to build five new natural gas-powered generators which would have enough capacity to power a midsize city. Mark Young, the general manager of Glendale Water & Power voiced the importance of these new plants:

“My job is to make sure that everyone has enough electricity when they need it. It feels like I’m the big bad wolf who loves thermal generation. I don’t – I love reliable generation.”

The importance of energy reliability cannot be understated. Other entities also support this. Alex Makler, the senior vice president for the West region at Calpine Corporation, has emphasized that it is incredibly hard to fully remove natural gas due to its many capabilities and economical viability.

As Californians have become increasingly aware of, it’s important that continual investment be made to keep the state’s natural gas plants running in order to supply Californians with a steady, reliable supply of energy.

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