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Renewable Energy: Bringing Blackouts Back to California?

The epidemic of power outages and “rolling blackouts” which nearly shut down California in the early 2000s may be returning. Back then, the culprits were unscrupulous energy providers like Enron and a poorly-thought out process of deregulation. This time, renewable energy would be to blame, as the state has pushed to increase the use of solar and wind energy without ensuring that there is enough traditional power generation to keep the grid stable on cloudy, windless days.

Although the blackouts haven’t happened yet, some are warning that they could begin to strike in the next couple of years. The Wall Street Journal explains the problem:

The surplus generating capacity doesn’t guarantee steady power flow. Even though California has a lot of plants, it doesn’t have the right mix: Many of the solar and wind sources added in recent years have actually made the system more fragile, because they provide power intermittently.

Electricity systems need some surplus, so they can cover unexpected generator outages or transmission-line failures, but having too much can depress the prices generators can charge for electricity. In part because of low power prices, many gas-fired generation units aren’t profitable enough to justify refurbishments required by pending federal regulations under the Clean Water Act. That means they are likely to be shut by 2020, adding to the state’s power woes.

The problem of intermittency of renewable energy is a well known one. Other states, including Texas, are facing similar troubles. California’s energy planners are aware of the problem, too, and they are looking to settle on plans to deal with it later this year. Nonetheless these projections of electricity problems are disturbing for a state with a long history of them, and the fact that there isn’t already a plan to deal with it makes us wonder whether we’re not about to witness another case of green policy failure. We’ll wait and see how this shakes out, but California will need to plan carefully to avoid serious problems down the road.

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