California power troubles, rolling blackout threat draw ire over renewable energy transition

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has said that 'capacity for storage' needs improvements

Conservation measures helped avoid rolling blackouts in California on Tuesday as a scorching heat wave has stressed the state's electrical system to a point not seen in two decades.

But the Golden State's recent power problems have drawn anger and new focus over an increased reliance on renewable energy and gaps in storage capacity for an event like record-breaking heat.

The California Independent System Operator (ISO), which manages most of the state's electric flow, had warned that many homes and businesses might be impacted in the late-afternoon hours before lifting an emergency declaration before 8 p.m., tweeting "We did it!"

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The ISO said high wind energy production and conservation helped keep electricity flowing, but another Flex Alert is in place Wednesday as triple-digit heat continues.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a statewide emergency Tuesday due to the heat and 30 large wildfires across the state, said California is in the "critical 48-hour period" with energy usage.

California has ordered rolling power outages for the first time since 2001 as a statewide heat wave strained its electrical system. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

On Monday, Newsom ordered an investigation into outages that occurred Friday and Saturday.

"We’re doing everything in our power to understand the root causes of this," the governor said.

Calif. Gov. Newsom declared an emergency Tuesday over wildfires burning throughout California as the state's power grid operator pleaded with residents and businesses to continue conserving energy to avoid rolling blackouts. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee via AP, Pool)

But Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno, the vice-chair of the Committee on Utilities and Energy, said Monday that the state's reduced dependence on natural gas has fueled the recent troubles.

"I have been warning over and over again that the policies coming out of the Democrat-controlled legislature and governors' office are creating the conditions for blackouts and brownouts and here we are seeing the evidence," Patterson told FOX26 News.

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Last September, officials during an ISO board meeting had warned that electricity shortages were possible during a heat wave in the near term due to the shift to renewable sources like solar and wind energy that are less reliable.

Electrical grid transmission towers in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. The operator of the state's power grid declared an emergency Friday evening, Aug. 14, and ordered utilities to shed their power loads. (AP Photo/John Antczak)

While California relies on large solar farms, Mark Rothleder, the ISO's vice president of market quality and state regulatory affairs, warned that energy demand surges during heat waves around 5 p.m. when people come home from work, just as the sun begins to set and solar power begins to wane, The Mercury News reported.

The ISO could typically import electricity from other states to make up for lost solar power, but a large heat wave impacting multiple states would mean that there wouldn't be enough power to go around.

California ISO has struggled to reduce the electrical demand since Friday when it issued the first rolling blackouts in nearly 20 years.

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The three biggest utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — turned off power to more than 410,000 homes and businesses for about an hour at a time until the emergency declaration ended three and a half hours later. A second but shorter outage hit Saturday evening, affecting more than 200,000 customers.

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Newsom in a news conference Monday said there were gaps in the "reliability" of power as utilities continue to transition from natural gas plants to renewable energy.

“Our capacity for storage in particular ... substantially needs to be improved,” the governor said, “but I am confident in our capacity to deal with that.”

Newsom said the state "cannot sacrifice reliability" going forward.

"We failed to predict and plan these shortages. And that's simply unacceptable," the governor said.

California has ordered rolling power outages for the first time since 2001 as a statewide heat wave strained its electrical system. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

In a call with reporters Monday, ISO CEO Steve Berberich said "renewables are really not a factor" behind the recent blackouts but also pointed to a need for better storage, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"It’s simply a matter of raw capacity," he said while calling for a "fairly extensive deployment of batteries" and "overbuild" of more renewables.

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Jan Smutny Jones, the CEO of the Independent Energy Producers Association, told the Mercury News that keeping gas-powered plants around until battery storage is increased is what's needed, akin to an insurance policy.

"Some folks in the environmental community want to shut down all the gas plants," he told the paper. "That would be a disaster."

President Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday night to blame Democrats for the recent blackouts, saying they "intentionally implemented rolling blackouts — forcing Americans in the dark. Democrats are unable to keep up with energy demand."

“Meanwhile, I gave America energy independence in fact, so much energy we could never use it all,” he added without giving evidence. “The Bernie/Biden/AOC Green New Deal plan would take California’s failed policies to every American!”

Patterson told FOX26 the recent problems showed that "you can't run" the fifth- largest economy in the world on just wind and solar.

"The governor says he wants an investigation. We don't need an investigation. What we need more electricity available when we need it, and that's gonna mean turn the natural gas plants back on," Patterson said. "We need more electricity. Plain and simple."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.