Californian Responds to Mississippi Sierra Club on Blackouts

Expansion of solar power in nearby states, not solely California, resulted in a lack of available exportable power and rolling blackouts

Re: Louis Miller, Let’s Not Black Out the Facts About California Blackouts, What It Means for Mississippi, Clarion Ledger, Sept. 11, 2020.

Louis Miller, head of the Mississippi Sierra Club, concludes in his above-captioned letter to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger newspaper that “renewable energy did not cause California’s blackouts”.  As someone who formed a Task Force to manage the 2001 California Energy Crisis for the largest urban water district in California, I felt I had to respond so the public is not misled.

Power and pollution in California are interrelated in a way not found in Mississippi due to topography.  The City of Los Angeles has to import as much as 75% of its power from gas and coal plants from Arizona, Utah and Nevada in order to meet their EPA mandated air quality standards.  Thus, California imports power but also exports or externalizes its pollution to nearby states where it is dissipated into the atmosphere and not trapped in air basins as it is in Los Angeles (“the solution to pollution is dilution”).

California’s cities have the worst air quality in the US because they are in a Basin State with air basins that trap smog from polluting power plants, industries and cars due to an “inversion layer”.  Conversely, Mississippi is a Gulf State and its gulf winds dissipate its emissions.

California and Mississippi have nearly opposite proportions of clean/dirty power: California has 70% installed “clean” power and Mississippi has 79% “dirty” power, mainly gas power plants.  So, if solar power is equally “reliable” as gas power as Miller contends why doesn’t Mississippi have unplanned rolling blackouts too (not to be confused with the planned blackouts California has to avoid forest fires)? Answer: California has base load solar power and Mississippi has none.  

Because of California’s dependence on solar for daytime baseload power, it has a daily energy crisis for about 2 to 4 hours per day starting around sunset when solar power cuts out. California buys imported dispatchable power (gas, coal, nuclear) from nearby states to replace solar power at sunset. But nearby states are also relying on more solar power that creates a daily energy crisis in those states too. There was not enough imported power available during the recent heat wave to meet California’s needs. So, it was the shift to solar power in nearby states, not solely in California, that precipitated California’s power shortfall and blackouts. Solar power in California forced the importation of power from nearby states. But now with the emergence of “microgrids” and the expansion of solar power from other states, the state electric grid is moving back to balkanized grids. But what will back up those microgrids?

Miller asserts that rooftop solar power “cuts out the middleman by eliminating the need to import coal or gas while shortening the distance electricity has to travel across power lines”.

Large solar and wind farms in California are located in the desert at least 100 miles from coastal urban cities or are in other states.

The new middlemen of green power are residential rooftop solar system owners who want to privatize the benefits and hefty subsidies for solar power but socialize the external costs onto other electricity customers.

Miller is misinformed that solar power “results in lower energy bills”.  As California has shifted to heavily subsidized green baseload power, the price of electricity for residential customers deceptively fell from 20.87 cents per kilowatt hour to 19.79 cents.  But total system costs rose from 18.5 to 18.8 cents per kilowatt hour. This is called “cost shifting” where one set of customers (residential solar rooftop) underpay making another (no solar residential, commercial, industrial) overpay. The Public Utilities Commission has to tack on a 14-cent per kilowatt hour tariff to rooftop solar users for escaping their fair share of system and transmission costs for backup power.

Miller also wrongly asserts that solar power results in lower energy bills because “customers aren’t being held hostage to ever-fluctuating fuel prices”. Wholesale electricity prices in California do not fluctuate each minute like the stock market because the grid operator (ISO) runs a day-ahead market by soliciting bids the prior day. 

In October California is going to switch to Time-Of-Use electricity billing instead of time averaging, which will result in price spikes from 25-cents per kilowatt hour to 40-cents per kilowatt hour during sunset hours. So-called cheaper solar power will not be available to defray the price spikes at sunset hours but will exacerbate them.  Before Time-Of-Use billing, the average price of electricity in California in 2018 was 16.58-cents per kilowatt hour compared to 9.24-cents per kilowatt hour for Mississippi.

When the sun goes down owners of solar rooftop systems have to be switched to natural gas power or install some sort of backup power of their own for the nighttime. A rooftop solar system backup battery costs from $5,000 to $7,000 to install and costs from $400 to $750 per kilowatt hour to operate.  By comparison, a natural gas home generator costs about 12.4-cents per kilowatt hour to run (in Florida) according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But California cities want to mandate elimination of all natural gas use in California citing “climate change”.

Miller quotes Steve Berberich, CEO of California’s grid operations, that renewable energy was “not a factor” in driving blackouts. But, as stated above, it was the expansion of solar power in nearby states, not California, that resulted in lack of enough imported gas power to handle the heat wave.  And one of the reasons that there were rolling blackouts in California on August 14 was that 1,000 megawatts of wind power was suddenly lost when the wind died

This is why California’s “one-size-fits-all” green energy policy is not a wise choice for Plains, Gulf, Mountain or Plateau States. Mississippi would be ill-advised to adopt California’s clean energy policies, baseload power from solar farms and rooftop solar systems tied into its power grid, mainly because it does not have a topography that traps air emissions.  As for lung cancers and asthma, they are declining with the decrease in smoking, not solely on improvements in air quality. Moreover, those diseases involve compromised immune systems and are not purely caused (although are aggravated) by airborne particulate matter (see James Enstrom, PhD., Fine Particulate Matter and Total Mortality in Cancer Prevention, Sage Publications, March 28, 2017).

California’s goal of all green power is only based on a semblance of formal systems planning and instead is based on “political power” planning. The technologies are not even invented yet or the cost well-defined to affordably form reliable micro-grids with battery ranches and hubs connected to solar farms.  California is “muddling through” to its green energy goals with failures and blackouts no matter the costs or consequences.

Wayne Lusvardi appraises private water utilities regulated by the CPUC and has no investments in public utilities or fossil fuels. He is a free-lance writer for CaliforniaGlobe.com

Comments

  1. This is the information everyone needs to hear. Thank you, Mr. Lusvardi.

  2. the sierra club is mostly a fundraising machine for “nice lifers”. they scheduled a protest for clean air in the busiest local intersection as far as traffic congestion. that helps the cause in a useless sophomoric way.

    i stopped my support mainly due to their knee-jerk partisan politics. if i ever support them again it would be by project and closely audited. that ain’t gonna happen.

    they have lost their way.

  3. I would have to say you are wrong in saying calif’s shift to renewables is not the reason for the blackouts. If calif had changed to natural gas power plants and built more dams for water storage and hydro electric power we would not have needed to buy out of state power nor would we have had blackouts

    • Boris Badenov says

      The cleanest are Nukes and Dams, we need water so dams are a great source BUT not during severe droughts. Nukes run 24/7/365. Yes we have earthquakes but by keeping them out of heavily populated areas and using the latest technology we should be just fine.

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