What’s Ailing California’s Electric System?

2. Lack of Resources to Balance Solar and Wind Power
California leads the nation in solar generation, and also uses a lot of wind generation. These carbon-free resources help reduce the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels. But unlike conventional power plants, they cannot be turned on and off as needed. By design, their availability depends on the sun and wind at any given moment. They can work well in conjunction with resources that can be turned on as needed, especially in the evening when the sun goes down. These “balancing” resources can be gas-fired plants, pumped water or battery storage, hydroelectric power, or the collective actions of homes and businesses to move their consumption to different times of the day. California does not have enough of these resources. See problem #1—someone needs to be in charge.

3. Closing Disfavored Resources Before Opening the New Ones
It is hard to site and build new energy resources, including carbon-free resources, anywhere in the country. Even in regions where there is strong political support for clean energy to fight climate change, it often doesn’t translate to people allowing wind turbines or a high-voltage transmission line to be built anywhere near them.

California has been decisive about what resources it doesn’t want anymore, including many of its gas-fired power plants and its last nuclear power plant. It has been much slower to actually construct resources to take their place. In the past three years, California has closed 5,000 megawatts (MW) of gas generation in anticipation of building 3,000 MW of battery storage that is still on the drawing board. In a heat wave, when every resource is needed, this gap in resources came home to roost.

4. Operating in a Silo
California is a large state, but it is not an island. It is part of a larger region whose resources could help to balance those available in the state, helping both California and the West as a whole. While CAISO and its neighbors have shared resources when they have extra, this does not help when resources are scarce. California would benefit from a regional market that took advantage of different weather, time zones, and resources to keep the lights on at least cost. California legislators have repeatedly considered legislation to change CAISO to allow regional operation, but have preferred in-state control. I believe that decision should be reexamined to take California into the future.

The Real Cure
When something goes wrong, it is easy to make snap judgments, demonize technologies you don’t like, or suspect foul play. Such false diagnoses about what ails California’s power system only encourage snake oil solutions. Putting in the hard work on big structural issues like the ones I identified is the real cure. California surely does not want to—and should not—back off its climate goals. But it should take a hard look at who is responsible for getting the resources in place to keep the lights on, and then make the tough decisions to do so. Its citizens deserve nothing less.

Cheryl A. LaFleur was a commissioner at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2010 through 2019, and chaired the commission from 2013-2015 and in 2017.She is currently a distinguished visiting fellow at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy.This storyis published courtesy of Earth Institute, Columbia University.