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Lawmakers debate clean energy substitutes to remove fossil fuels from strained California power grid

Extreme heat is expected to escalate strain on California's power grid, and leaders discussed balancing cleaner energy sources with ensuring grid reliability.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California soon will not have enough energy to meet future demand and prevent outages on an increasingly strained power grid, in part due to climate change. To address the looming disaster, state lawmakers met Tuesday to discuss how to decrease reliance on fossil fuels to protect the grid from the effects of destructive wildfires and supply chain issues. 

The state Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications subcommittee discussed strategies to diversify energy resources Tuesday morning. Subcommittee chair Senator Josh Becker, a Democrat from San Mateo who has written multiple climate action bills, said extreme heat is expected to escalate strain on the power grid and the state must balance using cleaner energy sources with ensuring grid reliability.

“Climate change is anticipated to make the summer conditions more intense and frequent,” Becker said, adding more heat waves with less hydroelectric energy threaten transmission lines every year.

Mark Rothleder of the nonprofit California Independent System Operator (CAISO) — overseeing the state’s bulk electric power system, transmission lines and electricity market — said more fossil fuel resources will be retired by 2025. That year, there’s a 10% chance of a major outage during a gap in energy resources, and he recommended combining solar development and storage to meet that need. 

Caifornia's Public Utilities Commission will need diverse sources of power to meet clean energy goals and protect the strained power grid during future climate change driven emergencies, researchers told the Senate. (CPUC / Courthouse News

Rothleder said the state has the authority to seek out clean energy resources to fill the gap, but must move quickly to contract and begin procuring enough resources before those years arrive. Current issues with the supply chain could continue to affect this process, and the state must plan time needed to improve power transmission, even using resources from other states.

“The ability to bring in, let’s say wind, from other parts of the region when wind production is high but solar production is low in California, becomes a real advantage if you can leverage that diversity in the system,” Rothleder said. 

Michael Colvin of Environmental Defense Fund said diverse types of sustainable energy are vital to decrease rising energy load on the grid. 

“We used to have our peak (demand) around 4 to 5 p.m. That’s shifting backwards, we are now seeing a delayed shift back by a couple of hours.” He said the current system was never designed to move so much gas around to many different locations, without being able to predict when it’s needed and for how long. 

Colvin suggested short-term strategies like compensating customers for their clean energy equipment — citing Assembly Bill 2667, to incentivize clean energy use — and short-term storage. A more widespread grid, increased transmission and long duration storage are among more long-term goals the Legislature can pursue. 

Alexis Sutterman, program manager at California Environmental Justice Alliance, also said the goal to divest from fossil fuel reliance is key to tackling how the power grid gap inequitably affects people of color. 

A map shows how many communities in California are located near gas-burning power plants. (California Environmental Justice Alliance / Courthouse News)

She said half of the state’s gas power plants are located in “environmental justice communities” — where people have the highest energy burden, the least resources to rely on during outages and most exposure to pollution.

“We want to make sure we’re really prioritizing clean energy investments first and foremost in these communities,” Sutterman said. 

Colvin said his group wants the state to people managing land use and permitting for new energy resource contracts, beyond the governor’s team focusing on transmission, and reporting progress back to the Legislature. 

Other interests say the state needs to improve coordinating with them. CEO Cisco DeVries said his company OhmConnect has paid $17 million to about 200,000 customers using more clean energy sources. He said the state could coordinate a better system connecting residents to programs to reduce energy during emergencies and save on power bills. 

Eric Meyer of Generation Atomic was one of several callers to the hearing asking to keep the thermonuclear Diablo Canyon Power Plant open — calling it the most cost-efficient source and asking the subcommittee to "please think about water when we’re thinking about energy.”

Sam Newell of Brattle Group said the California Public Utilities Commission could have a 22.5% gap if the power plants close.

“We could soon be in a situation where every megawatt counts,” Newell said. 

State Senator Henry Stern, a Democrat from Calabasas, said he supports finding ways to contract with new sources of clean energy, and using tools like a dashboard to help people see where the state is at.

“These next few years will be an inflection in the grid, not only in California but in the whole country.” He said there is both money and public support for cleaner energy to keep the state’s power grid running.

“I think the world can learn a lot from (us) — and the ratepayers, the people of California, can save some money and keep their lights on,” Stern said.

Governor Gavin Newsom has been pushing lawmakers to wean the Golden State off natural gas plants — recognizing the energy needs to be replaced.

"To achieve carbon neutrality we need to produce and utilize more zero-carbon, clean energy from sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydrogen than ever before,” Newsom wrote to the California Air Resources Board ahead of the board's meeting in July.

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