California Blackouts: A Reality Check for Minnesota’s Wind and Solar Ambitions

The following article was written by Isaac Orr and originally appeared in the Faribault Daily News: 

Millions of California families and businesses recently lost their electricity during a record-breaking heat wave. The blackouts occurred because of bad decisions by California politicians to shut down many of the state’s reliable nuclear, natural gas, and coal-fired power plants, resulting in an overdependence on unreliable energy sources like wind and solar. As a result, the state was unable to generate enough electricity to meet demand when it was needed most.

California’s rolling blackouts should be a reality check for the Minnesota lawmakers, utility executives, and wind and solar special interest groups who want to implement the same misguided policies in Minnesota. Their advocacy for adding more wind, solar, and battery storage to our electric grid while shuttering reliable power plants is both stupid and dangerous.

Make no mistake, these blackouts were entirely the product of bad energy policy. Even Stephen Berberich, the president of California’s grid operating organization, had scathing criticism of the energy policies enacted by California lawmakers. Berberich stated “The situation we are in could have been avoided. There is inadequate power available during the net peak, the hours when the solar [generation] has left the system.”

In other words, California has trouble generating enough electricity to keep the lights on when demand is highest because the sun is setting.

Wind power played a part in the rolling blackouts, too. “On Saturday night,” said Berberich, “we were within an hour of being able to service the load without incident…We lost a 400 MW [power station] unit and, the wind had been every good, but ran out. If the wind hadn’t run out on us, we would have been ok.”

Solar and wind apologists will undoubtedly claim that it was the extreme heat that caused the blackouts, and not the fact that wind and solar are unreliable, but this is wrong. It was hot in several southwestern states last weekend, but they didn’t experience rolling blackouts because they do not have energy policies that leave the safety of their citizens at the mercy of the weather.

Many people still don’t realize that wind and solar can only generate electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Fewer people understand that electricity must be consumed at the exact second it is generated –think of what happens when you unplug a lamp— and that the grid is not a giant bathtub that stores electricity for later use.

Currently, there is no messianic battery storage technology that can store enough electricity to power our lives, which means a grid that is overly dependent upon wind and solar will quickly turn dangerous when electricity supplies are stretched to the limit during extreme weather events.

In fact, Minnesota almost experienced an energy shortfall during the Polar Vortex of 2019. The regional grid operator declared a Maximum Generation emergency to make sure there was enough electricity because it was too cold for wind turbines to operate and there was too much snow on many of Xcel Energy solar panels for them to work properly. Renewables were no help.

Some wind and solar advocates have claimed that because weather events like the Polar Vortex of 2019 are relatively rare, we should not be as concerned about their impact on the grid. This is entirely wrong.

The electric grid must be built strong enough to withstand even the most extreme weather events because this is exactly when electricity is needed most. If we have a blackout during a polar vortex, furnaces stop running.

It is difficult to imagine a worse or more dangerous situation than an entire state without electricity or heat when it is negative 24 degrees Fahrenheit. If not for Minnesota’s reliable coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants, the Polar Vortex of 2019 would have been that disaster.

If Minnesotans want to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions while still having reliable electricity, we must legalize new nuclear power plants, import more hydroelectricity from Canada, and continue to utilize natural gas. These technologies will provide the highest environmental return on investment while keeping the lights on.

If we continue to implement the same policies as California in Minnesota, it won’t be long before we get the same results. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Minnesotans deserve better than to have politicians roll the dice on their electricity supplies. Hopefully this provides the wind and solar reality check our state desperately needs.