California Blackouts Serve as a Cautionary Tale

CEO Dave MarkhamWith temperatures topping 100 degrees and millions working from home due to COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of California homes went dark in August.

The blackouts were not a result of utilities de-energizing lines to prevent wildfires. Instead, there was a shortage of power when most needed. The aftermath left Gov. Gavin Newsom, utility representatives and the state’s bulk electric system operator pointing fingers at each other.

Numerous factors contributed to the blackouts: lack of available power supply internally and from out of state, transmission issues, volatile changes in wind generation and over-reliance on intermittent renewables.

The culmination of the crisis did not happen overnight. California paved the road for such an event long ago. Since the early 2000s, the state legislature passed multiple ambitious clean-energy policies. The renewable portfolio standard and cap and trade were landmark bills held up as the gold standard. They were imitated by other states, including Oregon, to varying degrees.

California’s RPS required electric sales to be 20% renewable by 2017. In subsequent years, the program was accelerated to 33% by 2020, 60% by 2030 and 100% by 2045.

The aggressive targets and expedited timeline forced California to transition away from coal, natural gas and nuclear power in favor of solar and wind. In the interest of developing alternative renewables, large hydropower—a 100% carbon-free, 24/7, flexible and reliable resource—does not count toward the RPS. California’s shuttering of natural gas and nuclear plants left fewer flexible and reliable resources to meet high peak demand.

Wind and solar should play an instrumental role in an all-of-the-above energy resources strategy. Without affordable large-scale battery storage, however, they cannot serve as the backbone to a state’s energy supply. When the wind stops and the sun goes down, these intermittent resources disappear—sometimes when most needed. To replace the lost energy requires expensive spot-market purchases, putting ratepayers on the hook.

Oregon has headed down a similar path. Although it failed in the last decade to pass a California-style cap-and-trade program, the state adopted an RPS in 2014, requiring 50% renewables by 2040. Likewise, Oregon recognizes wind, solar, wave energy and landfill gas as eligible resources, but not large hydropower.

The state legislature should not accelerate beyond a 50% renewable goal anytime soon, but it is considering doing so next year. Nor should there be any continued efforts to undermine the Pacific Northwest’s most significant energy asset: hydroelectricity.

Hydropower is generated along the Columbia, Snake and other major rivers and delivered to eight different states by the federal Bonneville Power Administration. The energy backstops intermittent renewables while providing public safety and regional economic value.

In the meantime, special-interest groups continue to push for breaching the Lower Snake River dams, which would adversely impact the Northwest’s electric grid’s reliability by taking more than 1,000 average megawatts offline and requiring market purchases at a higher cost and carbon content.

Oregon should take heed or find itself in the dark, too.