If Going 100% Renewable Is So Good For California, Why The Backroom Dealing?

Sammy Roth of The Desert Sun broke an interesting story last week about how Portland, Oregon-based PacifiCorp is working behind the scenes to effectively gut and amend a California State climate bill (SB 100) that would make California’s power generation carbon free by 2045.

And add new legislation (AB 726) that calls for the state grid operator to propose a new governance structure within a year, involving representatives of other states, and erasing California’s control of its own grid.

Furthermore, it requires renewable energy from Wyoming, the largest coal-producer in the Nation.

SB 100 could pave the way for California to import more wind energy from far-away places like Wyoming and export more California solar power to other western states. The hope is to remove the large amount of natural gas power presently needed to back-up the growing amount of wind and solar energy in the State, which are intermittent and not very reliable.

On the other hand, the last-minute legislation makes California give up sole control of the state’s power grid, giving conservative states like Utah and Wyoming significant influence over California’s energy mix.

This makes labor unions, political leaders and some environmental groups in the State a little nervous. As does the fact that it was pounded out in back-rooms and with many special interest groups, so no one is really sure what it would mean and how it would be accomplished.

It could completely change how the regional grid is managed and who would make the decisions, pitting red states against blue states, each having a totally different approach to energy and climate change.

What could go wrong?

The Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer watchdog based in San Francisco, has criticized such grid expansion, calling the 11th-hour deal-making ‘an example of Sacramento dysfunction at its worst.’ Matthew Freedman, an attorney for the group, said he’s seen a lot of bills rammed through the Legislature in the final days of session, but ‘this is as bad as I’ve ever seen it.’

‘There has been no committee hearings, there has been no bill, there has been no circulation of language. In our view the process is shameful,’ Freedman said last Friday, a few hours before the bill was released — just a week before the end of the session.

PacifiCorp has been lobbying the California legislature at least since 2003 to create a Regional Energy Imbalance Market that would allow it to sell its approximately 6,000 MW of coal generation and 3,000 MW of natural gas generation into the California market. To make those changes requires the authority of the present California Independent System Operator to be superseded by the new REIM.

This is what has critics concerned.

PacifiCorp serves customers in northern California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. About 70% of PacifiCorp’ generation is from gas and coal, about 10% from hydro, and about 20% from wind, solar and geothermal, so it’s odd that they portray themselves as a pro-renewable energy company that wishes to help get the country to 100% renewable energy.

The thing about energy is that electrons don’t retain a pedigree of where they came from or how they were produced. The only thing you can know is to whom a generating facility sells their electricity. Once it enters the grid, it disappears in the grid’s haze of electrons, never able to be untangled again.

Because this coming Friday will mark the end of the current legislative session, critics worry both bills are being proposed or revised at a late hour to avoid scrutiny.

‘PacifiCorp is working behind-the-scenes to effectively gut SB 100,’ warns Gene Nelson of Californians for Green Nuclear Power (CGNP). Wyoming energy provider PacifiCorp aims to profit in California electricity markets, and CGNP views the company’s promises to provide clean wind-powered energy as dubious. Warren Buffett, CEO of PacifiCorp parent Berkshire-Hathaway, once remarked tax credits for wind farms were ‘the only reason to build them.’

All this is happening at the same time that California may decide to close its most prolific source of low-carbon energy, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, decades ahead of schedule, meaning even more renewables would be needed to get rid of fossil fuels.

Dr. James Hansen, together with the leading climate scientists in the world, sent a letter to Governor Jerry Brown, about how nuclear energy was essential to fight global warming. The letter was prompted by an announcement by Pacific Gas & Electric Company to close its well-running, low-carbon, low-cost nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon because of political pressure from the State of California and especially its Lt. Governor.

So it seems like the state is trying to move forward with 100% renewable without really understanding how to do it.

The changes will be announced today, Monday, September 11, 2017, the last possible day for this legislative session to do so.

The issue is really quite complicated, both politically and economically, but Roth does an excellent job of laying it out clearly.