While California prides itself on its array of clean energy programs, large portions of the Golden State have been set ablaze and more than 2 million customers–the vast majority living in Pacific Gas Electric’s service territory–have had their power shut off in the past month to reduce the chances of utility equipment sparking wildfires.
Is the increased spending state policymakers have earmarked for renewable energy integration eating into the dollars utilities need to spend to harden their infrastructure and clear clogged forests ?
That’s at the heart of legislation two Republican members of the California Legislature say they will soon introduce.
Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, and Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, want to direct more money into utility infrastructure upgrades and clearing out vegetation to lessen the frequency of Public Safety Power Shutoffs–the precautionary blackouts power companies have increasingly deployed this fire season that de-energize lines in fire-prone areas.
Last month, PG Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said it could take a decade for his company to improve its electrical system sufficiently to significantly reduce the number of blackouts forced on customers.
Nielsen and Gallagher want to “temporarily pause” the state’s renewable energy mandates and require the state’s investor-owned utilities such as PG , San Diego Gas Electric and Southern California Edison use that money to harden the grid and reduce forest fuels.
“We are not waiting 10 years. No more power shutoffs. It needs to happen now,” Nielsen said in a statement. “Millions without electricity is what a third world country looks like, not a state that is the fifth-largest economy in the world.”
Gallagher said “there is no doubt that PG ‘s mismanagement is the primary culprit” but at the same time, “policies coming out of the State Capitol that distract from these primary objectives only make matters worse.”
If the mandates are suspended, the proposed legislation would freeze executive compensation and bonuses at the utilities.
The two Republicans said every dollar spent on additional costs of renewable energy results in a dollar not available to spend on culling vegetation, insulating power lines, placing lines underground and other measures.
Leaders of California Democrats, who dominate both houses in Sacramento, say the proposed bill would not help matters.
“Replacing clean energy sources with more energy generated from fossil fuels exacerbates the climate change that is causing the extreme weather and wildfires we are facing, and it would mean higher bills for ratepayers by reducing power available from less expensive wind and solar sources,” Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said in a statement.
With an eye toward slashing greenhouse gas emissions. the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard requires utilities to obtain 50 percent of California’s overall energy mix from renewable sources by 2030.
On top of that, then-Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed Senate Bill 100 into law that calls on the state to derive 100 percent of its power from clean-energy sources such as utility-scale solar and wind by 2045.
But Nielsen and Gallagher cited an annual report the California Public Utilities Commission sent to the Legislature in May that said PG spent $2.4 billion in 2018 to uphold a legislated mandate to buy renewable power. By comparison, they said PG spent about $1.5 billion in 2017 on maintenance expenses to update the company’s infrastructure.
However, a PG spokeswoman told the Union-Tribune the $1.5 billion figure accounted only for the company’s gas business in 2017. PG did not break down its maintenance expenses in 2017 but Brandi Merlo of PG said, “Over the last decade, PG has spent $27 billion on electric transmission and distribution, which includes replacing or upgrading equipment like towers, poles, and wires, and on vegetation management work.”
The increasing number and intensity of wildfires in the state in recent years have helped wiped out gains the state has made in reducing emissions.
Last month, a report prepared by the independent consulting firm Beacon Economics for the San Francisco-based think tank Next 10 estimated California wildfires last year produced about nine times more emissions than were reduced across the entire state’s economy between 2016 and 2017–and wildfires contributed more than the commercial, residential or agriculture sectors did in 2017.
“Science shows that redirecting funding to forestry management gets us a better bang for our buck in carbon reduction,” Gallagher said.
The California Air Resources Board told the Los Angeles Times it’s unfair to compare carbon released by wildfires with emissions from burning fossil fuels because they are two different types of pollution.
“The carbon stored in wildfires is part of the natural carbon cycle,” Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young said. “Emissions from fossil fuels are the result of pulling carbon out of the ground that otherwise would not be there, and pumping it into the atmosphere.”
Dan Jacobson, state director for Environment California, said the proposed bill would not save money, pointing to the downward trend in Renewable Portfolio Standard contract prices that is largely due to falling prices for wind and solar power that make up 83 percent of the renewable generating capacity for the state’s investor-owned utilities.
“At this point,” Jacobson said, “the renewables are cheaper than other resources that we would be using.”
Gary Ackerman, a utilities and energy consultant with more than four decades of experience in California power issues, said the proposal brings up cogent issues about maintaining the grid, balancing greater renewable energy sources and trying to keep rates affordable.
“If you don’t have a reliable grid, you don’t get the power at your house or business,” Ackerman said. “And if you just keep on throwing money at new generation resources, which by the way we can’t even absorb all of it during the middle of the day, when will the public come to grips with what it is they’re spending money on and why ?”
California’s production of solar and wind is growing but they are intermittent energy sources. They produce when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing but they don’t when it’s dark or cloudy and when the breezes die down.
At the same time, solar production in California is so plentiful when the sun is out, it can lead to an oversupply and grid managers sometimes have to send the excess solar to neighboring states like Arizona or curtail it all together.
John J. Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said even though the chances of the proposed bill ever getting through the Legislature are slim, he would not say the bill has no chance at all.
“On the merits, it’s a very reasonable response to an urgent need,” Pitney said. “In the long run, we probably want to move toward renewables, but we have a much more pressing problem with infrastructure… If the problems with the grid and fire control get worse, Democrats might be receptive to solutions they would otherwise spurn.”
Earlier this year, PG filed for bankruptcy protection after citing about $30 billion in potential liabilities from wildfires.
Gallagher and Nielsen said they will also introduce a resolution urging the court handling PG ‘s filing to void solar contracts the company signed before 2012. Those contracts were agreed to when renewable prices were much higher than they are today and are estimated to cost PG an extra $2.2 billion per year. The savings from renegotiating the contracts, the GOP lawmakers said, would be used to reduce fire risks and power shutoffs.
But the Utility Reform Network, or TURN, a consumer group based in San Francisco, called the resolution “misguided.”
Terminating existing renewable energy contracts would send the wrong signal to businesses, “throw existing electricity markets into chaos and make it virtually impossible to attract financing for new investments in any portion of the California electric system,” said TURN staff attorney Matt Freedman.
Southern California Edison spent $2.5 billion and SDG spent $680 million to uphold renewable power mandates in 2018.
An SDG spokesman said late Monday afternoon the company has not taken a position on the proposed legislation.
A representative for Southern California Edison said, “at this time we would not want to speculate on the idea, before it’s introduced as legislation formally with greater detail.”
Merlo of PG said, “There will be a time and place to discuss policy proposals, but right now our full attention in on safety.”