On the day California ran out of electricity, where did the state turn to find more power?
To the oldest and cleanest form of electricity there is — hydropower. Considering that California is going out of its way to make hydropower more expensive and less available, you don’t have to be an electrical engineer to see the disconnect.
This heat generated incredible electrical demand. Even with the millions of solar panels and thousands of windmills installed over the last decade, California couldn’t meet that demand.
The California Independent System Operator was forced to black out nearly 2 million people. No warning, no recourse, just silence as all their electronic gear went dead in parts of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Stockton and Merced.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. When demand surges, California usually orders up more power from Arizona or Washington. But temperatures hit 116 in the Valley of the Sun and nearly 100 in eastern Washington; there was little or none to spare.
Cal ISO officials have been predicting such a scenario for years. With so many people working from home in the pandemic, peak-demand times have gotten later — when solar panels are unable to help meet demand. That left millions in the dark.
So far, we’ve gotten no good explanation. Isn’t the California Public Utilities Commission supposed to play a role in guaranteeing the reliability of public utilities – like electricity?
Such failures are why I asked the Legislative Audit Commission for a full-scale review of the CPUC last winter. That request could not be fulfilled, but the necessity is clear.
So how did Cal ISO finally get the lights back on? It turned to hydropower, the oldest form of electricity generation there is.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — which operates the Glen Canyon, Hoover and Davis dams — increased generation flows, surging power into California. Bureau officials had anticipated the need and were ready to act.
That won’t surprise the people of Assembly District 21. We’ve been making hydroelectricity for, oh, about 100 years. We’re still making hundreds of megawatts at Don Pedro Dam and Exchequer Dam, among others.
Outrageously, people living in my district have been forced to pay a premium for their power — a penalty for having the foresight to invest in meeting their own needs. This penalty was legislated into their electricity bills by the state of California by Senate Bill 100 in 2018. This poorly planned law set a timetable for every power provider — publicly or privately owned — to load up on officially anointed “renewable” energy.
Inexplicably, SB 100 ruled hydropower — the most reliable and cleanest renewable energy — wouldn’t be considered “renewable” until 2030.
So even those who generate their own hydropower — like San Francisco, Modesto, Turlock and Merced — are now forced to buy more expensive solar and wind power. Those extra costs can be found on our power bills every month.
Why is this? California’s environmental community hates our dams, where power is created, so they also hate the hydroelectricity made at those dams. Yet electricity made at dams in Washington and Colorado, for instance, is perfectly acceptable to the green movement.
With the setting sun obscured by clouds and smoke, all those windmills and solar panels could meet only 18% of California’s demand. California’s “renewable” generators – who claim to provide a third of all power generated in California — failed to meet the test.
Gas-fired generators needed a longer ramp-up time, so they couldn’t help. That left it almost entirely up to dam operators to meet the challenge. Hydropower helped save the day.
If we are going to meet California’s urgent power needs, we cannot relegate our most affordable and reliable clean power to second-class status. Making hydropower more expensive reduces any desire to create more of it. That’s as dangerous as it is ridiculous.
Yes, millions of solar panels are capturing the sun. That’s wonderful. But they simply cannot meet spiking demand. Hydropower isn’t just an inexpensive form of renewable, clean energy; in a heat wave it’s a lifesaver.
Don’t be blinded by the promise of a solely solar-powered future. The choice is ours: reclassify hydropower now, or risk being left in the dark.
Assemblymember Adam Gray, a Democrat from Merced, represents Assembly District 21, which includes Merced and Stanislaus counties. He wrote this column for CalMatters , a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.