Californians are tired of doing their part during triple-digit heat
California is learning the hard way that people will grow impatient with unreliable energy sources, and this could lead to rolling blackouts this summer in the Golden State.
The problem in California stems from the fact that they don’t have enough reliable power plants on their system to provide enough electricity for their residents when the wind isn’t blowing hard enough and the sun is setting.
Rather than keeping reliable natural gas and nuclear plants online, California has opted for electricity imports and pleading with its residents to stop using as much electricity by not using large appliances or charging their electric vehicles when electricity demand is high, but supplies generated from wind and solar are low.
It appears Californians are becoming tired of this inconvenience.
According to Politico, for the last several years, state officials have relied on residents to rescue the electric grid from collapse by reducing their energy use on the most blistering of days. But during a brutal July heatwave, Californians largely ignored repeated calls for conservation.
Many things go wrong for the system when temperatures soar, heightening the risk of rolling blackouts in the weeks before Gov. Gavin Newsom’s September recall election. And state officials, under crushing pressure to keep the lights on in the meantime, now worry they have lost a key arrow in their quiver as heat waves continue to hammer Western states.
“I think we’re not taking it that seriously,” said Severin Borenstein, a member of the California grid operator’s board of governors. “This is not a mechanism that we can rely on as a primary mechanism for dealing with the bad situation that we’re in.”
California’s problems are the result of bad political decisions that have mandated the state to use ever-increasing amounts of wind and solar energy, even though these mandates have increased costs for Californians and reduced the reliability of the electricity supply.
The graph below shows California has shuttered reliable natural gas and nuclear power plants between 2013 and 2019, and has become increasingly reliant on unreliable wind and solar resources. Unfortunately for California residents, these chickens are coming home to roost.
Thus far, California has been able to lean on residents to reduce consumption to prevent blackouts, but it appears people are sick of doing the grid operators’ job for them. Politico continues:
California’s awkward transition to renewable energy points to the kinds of challenges that could complicate President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda. As states add more solar energy, for example, they rely more heavily on fossil fuels in the evening after the sun sets and demand comes back on the system.
Until just recently, the state had success with its “Flex Alert” system, which asks residents on extremely hot days to stop running appliances and crank up their thermostats. Conservation helped spare the grid during an especially tough stretch last Labor Day weekend, along with the days after two nights of rolling blackouts last August. Demand dropped to such a low level on Aug. 17 that it had the same effect as taking more than 3.7 million homes offline.
But there is a growing sense that the state is overusing Flex Alert, asking too frequently — and on days when easing air conditioner usage is most uncomfortable. The tool was once used sparingly, just 21 times between 2009 and 2019, but state officials called 10 alerts last year alone, and five so far this summer.
By July, residents appeared to show signs of fatigue. Demand did not drop at all on July 9 or 10, despite two Flex Alerts, though it did dip on July 12, when temperatures were slightly cooler.
Amazingly, rather than acknowledging their own failure, the California grid operator, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) scolded residents for not doing enough to reduce their air condition use in triple-digit heat:
California Independent System Operator CEO Elliot Mainzer put it politely to reporters when expressing his disappointment with the negligible conservation July 9. “I think that we are going to need more response than we saw last night,” Mainzer said the following day.
With all due respect, Elliot Mainzer should be apologizing to Californians for his failure to make sure that they have a constant supply of reliable, affordable electricity, not looking down his nose at them for not completely reorganizing their lives to accommodate unreliable wind and solar generation.
One idea to reduce electricity use in California is to pay residents not to use electricity during times when the grid is stressed, rather than rely on voluntary reductions in consumption. According to Politico, a 2018 study in the American Economic Journal found that extending payments to the residential sector is more effective at achieving conservation than “moral suasion.”
Who could have guessed that providing an economic incentive to act a certain way would be more effective than self-righteous scolding?
If payments to residents are the carrot incentivizing Californians to use less electricity, higher prices are the stick. This scenario will likely be on the table in the future. Politico details:
If [payments to customers] aren’t enough, higher electricity prices during heat waves will be necessary, said Stanford University law professor Michael Wara, who directs the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
Higher prices would likely spark an outcry, as it did in Texas when customers received four- and five-figure energy bills after a winter storm earlier this year. The Lone Star State, however, has a largely unregulated system that lacks California’s consumer protections and market designs.
The job of the grid operator and Public Utilities Commission of California is to provide reliable, affordable electricity to everyone in California. Rather than doing this job, these entities are looking for ways to punish people for living in the 21st century.
Unfortunately, it will be low-income Californians who suffer the most because they can least afford such punitive pricing mechanisms. California is an example of what not to do, but Governor Walz and other liberal lawmakers don’t seem to care about the real-life negative consequences of California’s energy policies.