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Millions of Californians Lose Electricity Due to Cloud Cover, Low Wind Speeds

Last weekend, two million Californians suffered through rolling blackouts during record-breaking heat because cloud cover reduced the amount of electricity generated from solar power, and low wind speeds resulted in little production from wind energy, according to California’s regional grid operator, the California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO). If Minnesota does not change it’s current course on energy policy, we will soon suffer the same fate.

California has some of the most stringent renewable energy mandates in the country. Currently, California law requires requires that 50 percent of California’s electricity to be powered by renewable resources by 2025 and 60 percent by 2030, while calling for a “bold path” toward 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2045, according to National Public Radio.

The graph below shows data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Since 2008, California has increased the amount of installed wind and solar capacity on their grid while reducing the amount of nuclear power. Natural gas capacity was increasing from the year 2000 through 2013, but then wind and solar advocates in California began advocating for the closure of gas plants. California’s liberal politicians were too happy to oblige them.

Since 2013, California has lost more than 6,000 megawatts of natural gas capacity. For context, that is more power plant capacity than all of the coal and nuclear power in the state of Minnesota, combined. As a result, California’s electric grid has become more dependent upon wind and solar, to disastrous effect.

According to Anne Gonzales, the head of CAISO, the blackouts occurred in part because the record heat wave also brought clouds with it, reducing power output by the solar panels during the day. In a phone interview, Ms. Gonzales told KRON4 News:

“This was completely driven by excessive heat. There was so much demand and we also had cloud cover at the same time that came in with this heat wave and it reduced our solar generation which further tightened our energy supply.”

There is no doubt that the extreme heat drove demand for electricity, but with all due respect to Ms. Gonzales, it was hot in several states last weekend and they did not have to shut the power off to millions of people when they needed electricity most. The blackouts were completely driven by decades of terrible energy policy in California that have caused them to rely on the weather-dependent wind and solar for their electricity generation.

It isn’t just clouds that limit solar production, it is also the reality that solar panels cannot generate electricity when there isn’t any sun at night. Ms. Gonzales also told Bloomberg:

“We did call on all of our reserves,” she said. “There was record breaking heat. At 7:30 p.m, the sun was going down and the demand was holding. There is nothing nefarious going on here. We are just trying to run the grid. [emphasis added]The peak demand was steady in late hours and we had thousands of megawatts of solar reducing their output as the sun set.”

Wind is not blameless in the blackout story, either. On August 15, CAISO issued this press release:

“The California Independent System Operator (ISO) declared a Stage 3 Electrical Emergency at 6:28 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 15, due to increased electricity demand, the unexpected loss of a 470-megawatt (MW) power plant, and loss of nearly 1,000 MW of wind power.

The load was ordered back online 20 minutes later at 6:48 p.m., as wind resources increased.”

Luckily, the wind picked back up and power was able to be restored after 20 minutes, but liberal California politicians continue to gamble with the lives of their citizens by relying on weather-dependent resources.

You’d never know it was bad energy policy that caused the blackouts by reading The New York Times, though. They managed to publish an entire article about the blackouts while never once mentioning the inherent reliability challenges that wind and solar bring to the table. Fortunately, the Mercury News in California provided an excellent account of the events.

Paul Rogers of The Mercury News writes:

“Rolling blackouts that cut power to hundreds of thousands of Californians this weekend during a historic heat wave — even as state officials warned that more outages are likely through Wednesday night — have shocked and angered residents from the Bay Area to Southern California.”

“But as the state continues its historic shift away from fossil fuels like natural gas that provide consistent power toward cleaner sources like solar and wind energy that rise and fall with the weather and the sun, experts say the power grid has become more difficult to operate and more at risk of blackouts.”

“But the crisis — the first rolling blackouts on California’s power grid since 2001 — has exposed a dangerous vulnerability. Not only are millions of people who are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic inconvenienced, but power shutoffs endanger public health, particularly elderly residents who can fall ill or die from heat stroke.”

“We have a much more risky supply of energy now because the sun doesn’t always shine when we want and the wind doesn’t always blow when we want,” said Frank Wolak, a Stanford University economics professor who specializes in energy markets. “We need more tools to manage that risk. We need more insurance against the supply shortfalls.”

The blackouts were entirely predictable. In fact, CAISO warned that there could be electricity shortfalls as early as the fall of 2020.

“Last fall, top officials at California’s power grid operator warned that electricity shortages were likely as soon as 2020 because of the trend.”

“At a meeting on Sept. 18, of the governing board of the California Independent System Operator, the non-profit public benefit corporation that runs the state’s power grid, Mark Rothleder, vice president of market quality and state regulatory affairs for the agency, gave a presentation on the coming crisis.

He noted that 33% of the state’s electricity now comes from renewable sources, a requirement for utilities under state law that had been met two years early.

But with large solar farms making up an increasing percentage of California’s power generation, he said, crunch time happens in the late afternoon, particularly on hot days. People turn on air conditioning and other devices around 5 p.m. as the heat peaks and they come home from work. Electricity demand surges, just as the sun is setting and solar power is drying up.

Rothleder said that the ISO, which functions as a kind of air traffic controller for the grid, makes up for that lost solar power by importing electricity from dams and power plants in other Western states, and also by relying on natural gas-fired power plants still operating in California.

But he noted ominously that if there were a big Western heat wave, there probably would not be enough power from other states available to close the gap. He called it “a most urgent issue” that “really needs timely attention.”

“We have made significant progress on the road to our clean energy goals,” he said. “That said, as we look ahead, we do see some challenging things occurring.”

Conclusion

Relying on weather-dependent resources for electricity is stupid and dangerous. In Minnesota, the worst case scenario probably isn’t a heat wave, it is another polar vortex. In 2019, temperatures dipped below -24 degrees F and it was too cold for wind turbines to operate. Also, Xcel Energy states that snow on their solar panels greatly decreased their ability to generate electricity. The Midwest grid operator issued an emergency order for fear of running out of electricity.

Imagine what will happen during the next polar vortex if Xcel is able to shut down their reliable power plants before the end of their useful lifetime and attempts replace them with wind and solar. Heaters will shut off, blower fans will stand still, circulation pumps for radiators won’t pump hot water to heat homes. It will be a complete disaster and people will probably die.

Humans have never been less reliant upon a steady stream of electricity than we are today, and the continued computerization of our economy means we will also never be less dependent upon reliable electricity than we currently are. Power outages put the lives of millions of people at risk, and these outages were entirely the fault of bad political decisions.

 

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