Wind turbines spin at the Ocotillo facility in Imperial County. Photo by Chris Stone

A cosmic policy convergence is brewing a nasty storm that will hit California hard in a few years. With deadlines for an all-renewable electricity grid as well as the end of sales of new gasoline-powered cars bearing down on the state, we’re facing a future of commonplace blackouts and energy prices so high some might be tempted to light candles to ward off the dark.

No one will be able to say a proper warning was never issued. A senior automotive industry executive told a Senate committee recently that “if we are to make dramatic progress in electrification, it will require overcoming tremendous challenges, including refueling infrastructure, (and) battery availability.” He is from the same company, Toyota, whose CEO, Akio Toyoda, a few months ago “explained to his audience that Japan would deplete its supply of electricity in the summer if all cars were running on electric power.”

This isn’t the case of an automaker trying to protect his business, which has been based on gasoline-powered cars for more than eight decades and recently announced it was making a $210 million investment to boost production of its V6 engines. It’s an instance of an experienced businessman laying out the facts policymakers don’t want to hear.

Elon Musk, whose Tesla company builds electric vehicles, also sees the looming challenges. An all-electric fleet, he’s said, will double electricity consumption.

The storm gales began to blow with the passage of Senate Bill 100 in 2018. This “landmark” legislation demands that 100 percent of the electricity generated in the state must be from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2045. Governor Gavin Newsom then seeded the clouds in September with executive order N-79-20, which bans the sale of new gasoline- and diesel-powered cars by 2035.  

With traditional — and cheaper and more reliable — sources still online, for a while anyway, after 2035, the power demand from the growing number of electric cars might be met. But what happens as 2045 nears? Will the all-renewables regime produce enough electricity to meet the demand?

A couple of days after Newsom issued his command, the Wall Street Journal reported that “energy consultants and academics say converting all passenger cars and trucks to run on electricity in California could raise power demand by as much as 25 percent,” while also pointing out the state “is already facing a shortfall of power supplies over the next couple of years.”

The Wall-Street Journal quoted an official from the California Independent System Operator, which runs the state electrical grid, saying that “it is too early to tell what kind of impact” Newsom’s order will have on our power grid, and we don’t have any specific analysis or projections. Isn’t that the sort of information the governor should have in hand before he decided to unilaterally ban an entire class of automobiles?

Nearly 200 natural gas plants will be shuttered if the state is to meet the 2045 deadline. Dying along with them will be the immense wattage of electricity they produce — more than 40 percent of the power generated in California. The power from large dams, which account for more than 16 percent of electricity generation in the state, will be lost, too.

Simply replacing the missing power with wind and solar production won’t be enough. Even before Newsom’s order, forecasts had been predicting an increased demand. 

Not to be forgotten are future energy costs. There’s not much to be inspired about here. Yes, prices for wind and solar, which will be the only renewables allowed in California, have fallen, but they are still more expensive than fossil fuels. Their mandated use is in large part responsible for the state’s higher electricity prices, and the pace at which prices have dropped is unlikely to be maintained as development breakthroughs are reaching their limits.

There are also the capital costs required to build the renewables infrastructure that will show up in power bills, as will the high cost of the scarce raw materials needed for the electric-vehicle batteries, solar panels, and windmills. PRI senior fellow Wayne Winegarden says it will all be enough to crush poor people.

It’s possible that by 2035 technology will have advanced so far that wind and solar will be as reliable and inexpensive as natural gas, and by 2045 more reliable and even cheaper. It’s just as possible renewables will still be fickle and more costly. Despite the unknowns, policymakers have committed California to an energy future that might look more like the distant past.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

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