Hundreds of thousands of California residents were affected over the weekend by a series of rolling blackouts, and Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility for most of Northern California, said to expect more on Tuesday evening. The region has suffered a heat wave in recent days, creating a spike in power needs as residents crank up their air-conditioning and tax the system. California’s grid operator said the malfunction of two natural gas plants and dipping electricity from solar and wind power contributed to a supply shortfall.
Energy experts have been unable to agree on the underlying, long-term policy trends that may have contributed to the weekend’s power outages amid a historic heat wave, but the head of the nonpartisan California Independent System Operator said shutoff decisions happen on the staff level and with no political considerations.
“The load disruptions, those are actually issued by a shift manager down in our control room,” CAISO’s chief executive, Steve Berberich, told reporters on Tuesday when asked about Trump’s tweets. “There wasn’t any party affiliation or other kind of input into the decision to shed load on Friday and Saturday night.”
PG&E and other utilities have orchestrated preemptive power shut-offs in recent years to help reduce the risk of its wires and other infrastructure sparking wildfires, including last fall. But California has not seen widespread outages due to a lack of electricity supply since 2001, when Enron and other energy traders manipulated the state’s electricity market.
As unfounded as Trump’s “intentionally implemented” comment might be, his follow-up tweet — linking the state’s aggressive efforts to ramp up renewable energy and wind down fossil fuels to its current problems — may have merit, some experts argue.
“I think it is pretty accurate,” said Frank Wolak, a Stanford University energy economist, of Trump’s tweet. From 1998 to 2011, Wolak ran the committee that monitors California’s grid operator. “The folks in Sacramento didn’t understand basic physics would be a simple way to explain it. Because the one thing that saves us is we did have a lot of capacity in California to start with, it’s just that we retired too much of it.”
The state has retired 10,000 megawatts of nuclear and natural gas power plants since 2013 on its way to a low-carbon electric grid, according to the California Energy Commission. It has replaced that with 13,000 megawatts of solar and wind, which cannot produce round-the-clock electricity. Roughly a third of California’s power comes from its neighbors, according to the Energy Information Administration.
As the heat wave swept across the region, nearby states withheld their power generation to meet their own power needs, depriving California of crucial megawatts as the sun set and solar panels stopped producing. California could not make up the shortfall.
Berberich rejected accusations from conservative politicians, pundits and The Wall Street Journal op-ed pages that the state had become too dependent on unreliable renewable energy.
“Renewables are really not a factor,” he said on Monday, noting the two malfunctioning gas plants. “It’s simply a matter of raw capacity.”
Cloud cover over the weekend did contribute to some solar farms not being available, he said. Breezes also died down on Saturday, leading to wind turbines not being able to produce power.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed an emergency proclamation on Sunday allowing some energy users and utilities to tap backup energy sources, and he has ordered several state agencies to investigate the blackouts.