Written by Kathleen Ronin
Sacramento, California (AP) – In an effort to avoid blackouts, California may turn to the only energy source it is desperate to get rid of: fossil fuels.
The comprehensive energy proposal signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday puts the state in charge of purchasing energy to ensure there is enough to navigate through heat waves that exhaust the grid. But some critics say the way to get there runs counter to the state’s broader climate goals, as it paves the way for the state to take advantage of old gas-fired power plants and add back-up diesel-powered generators.
The debate highlights the challenge some countries face as they scramble to tackle heat waves fueled by climate change without compromising their pledges to move to non-fossil energy sources such as solar and wind.
California gets most of its energy from renewable sources during the day, but does not yet have the storage necessary to send out enough solar energy after sunset. The bill aims to speed up the construction of more renewable energy and storage facilities by keeping local governments out of permission decisions. Supply chain issues are also slowing down the construction process.
Democratic Senator Dave Min noted the state’s dire situation with its potential need to rely on fossil fuels and their greenhouse emissions to deal with heat waves caused by climate change.
“This is the obvious puzzle we’re in,” said Maine, who represents Huntington Beach, a coastal community that includes a gas-fired power plant.
The problem is not unique to California. In New Mexico, a coal-fired power plant was scheduled to shut down its last two units Thursday. But a major facility has asked the state to keep one unit open until September to meet orders during the hot summer months since solar and battery storage projects that were supposed to replace lost capacity have been delayed.
State energy officials warned earlier this year that the state risks an energy shortage equivalent to what it takes to power 1.3 million homes on hot summer days. Newsom and lawmakers are desperate to avoid a scenario like August 2020, when hundreds of thousands of people temporarily lost power due to insufficient supplies.
Newsom’s solutions focus on creating a “strategic reliability reserve” managed by the Water Resources Department. The Water Agency has been given this role because it is a major producer and user of energy through its dams and the operation of the state’s water pumping system. This summer, the administration could reimburse for utility costs if it had to purchase additional power and add temporary power generators, including those that run on fossil fuels. No diesel generators can be used after 2023.
Furthermore, the water division will be able to build new energy storage plants and zero-emission generating stations. State money could also be spent on purchasing power from coastal gas-fired plants that were due to close in 2023. The plants were scheduled to close for the first time in 2020. Similarly, the administration could continue to buy power from the last remaining nuclear power plant. in the state if it remains open after closing in 2025.
Newsom said in a statement to sign that he will direct state agencies to “ensure that clean energy resources are prioritized over fossil fuels.”
Senator Henry Stern, a Democrat from Los Angeles County, said that while the bill does not allow for the expansion of fossil fuel plants, it is a question that lawmakers will have to address.
“What this bill does is buy time,” he said.
Republican state Senator Shannon Grove, who represents fossil-fuel-rich Bakersfield, said the legislation proves California needs oil and gas.
“If we didn’t have these gas stations to ignite when we needed them, you wouldn’t be able to flip a switch and get electricity,” she said.
Meanwhile, environmental groups said the state would not need to rely on fossil fuels as a backup if it moved faster to build renewable resources and expressed concern that the bill did not place sufficient protective barriers on water management capacity. The department will not have to comply with California’s historic environmental law to move forward with new projects.
“The state says we need to rely on fossil energy, and they don’t fully admit that it’s because of a lack of ambition,” said Alexis Sutterman, director of energy equity at the Environmental Justice Coalition of California.
Andrew Campbell, executive director of the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said the new water management authority for energy procurement is “very broad and open” and something “really worth checking”.
He said California is likely to be at the forefront of a challenge likely to hit other US states as it moves away from fossil fuels and boosts the amount of energy needed from the grid.
“Developing a very clean electrical system and doing it reliably is a challenge that has not been solved anywhere,” he said. “And California, since it has so far been along with the development of renewable energy, is facing this challenge sooner than some other places.”