California Turns to Natural Gas to Address Grid Reliability Issues

As California continues to face high energy demand and low supply issues, the state has turned to five natural gas plants to ensure the reliability of the electrical grid. As Fox 26 reported:

“California officials say five temporary gas-fueled generators will be set up around existing power plants throughout the state to avoid blackouts and boost the state’s grid.”

A rise in energy demand and the closure of natural gas and nuclear plants as California pursues more aggressive renewable implantation policies resulted in the first rolling blackout in 19 years occurring in 2020 and even more since.

While many have applauded the state’s decision to increase renewable energy, the reality of shutting down existing power generation without having adequate supply and in favor of using an intermittent fuel source has proven complicated, inadequate, and detrimental to the state’s energy reliability, affecting critical needs such as cooling and refrigeration.

California Assemblyman Jim Patterson recently told local media:

“We cannot keep the lights on without additional natural gas and the state’s been forced to go out and find it in an emergency situation.”

Continued Reliance on Traditional Fuels

Energy demand in California is steadily increasing and the state has sought to meet this demand with an increase in renewable energy. However, the deployment of renewables has done little to reduce the state’s reliance on traditional fuels as California is the largest net electricity importer of any state. In 2019, the Golden State imported 71 million megawatt hours, nearly 12 percent of which was generated with natural gas.

State officials are aware of the reliance on natural gas imports and have stalled the phasing out of natural gas power plants. Redondo Beach officials wanted to close a local natural gas plant in 2020, but the Public Utilities Commission postponed the closure till 2023, citing a need for reliable electricity flowing to Southern California.

The need for natural gas generation will only increase as the state’s last nuclear plant, the Diablo Canyon power plant, is set to close in 2025. Diablo Canyon produces roughly 18,000 GWh of electricity annually — close to 10 percent of California’s electricity mix.

If the state fails to keep natural gas generation viable, it will continue to rely on imports and see more blackouts when imports are limited. The reliance on a limited supply caused blackouts last year and threatens to do the same this summer.

The state has also become more reliant on the import of foreign oil instead of domestic sources. Demand for oil has stayed the same even as domestic production has declined, which has been replaced by foreign imports.

This trend will only increase as California bans new oil drilling permits and moves to ban fracking by 2024.

Increasing Costs

Even as the cost of renewables continues to fall, California is seeing increasing electricity costs with the average consumer paying 80 percent more than the national average. In 2020 alone, Californian electricity costs rose 7 percent. More recently, PG&E customers saw rates increase 3.7 percent in one month this year resulting in an average monthly increase of $5.01 for residential consumers.

Patterson has been vocal about California’s energy dilemma:

“California has been gambling that we can have a grid that can supply the fifth largest economy in the planet with enough electricity primarily from wind and solar. Now, the problem with that is that wind and solar is not baseload, it is intermittent load, it is a supply that goes away when we need it the most.”

With the projected increase of electric vehicles in California, the leading EV state, electricity demand is only going to increase. An analysis from IHS Markit showed that electric vehicle sales in California grew from 4.6 percent in 2018 to 6.2 percent in 2020, and will represent 10 percent of cars in the U.S. by 2025, a figure which will certainly be higher in California, further stressing their energy grid.

A Natural Gas Solution

The stark reality is that California and the Public Utility Commission have miscalculated the ability of green renewable energy to meet current and future energy demands while natural gas and nuclear plants are taken offline. The result is the return of rolling blackouts to California after a 20-year hiatus.

An Energy In Depth has noted before, natural gas and renewables are complementary fuels that allow states to both lower their carbon emissions and ensure grid reliability.

That strategy is being pursued by the largest utility in Colorado as a top company official told the Colorado Sun earlier this year:

“The plan also calls for adding 1,300 MW of ‘dispatchable’ resources, primarily natural gas and battery storage that can be turned up or down as needed to balance the wind and solar generation. Jackson said the recent problems meeting electricity demand during frigid winter storms earlier this month, particularly in Texas, underscore the need for a diversified system.

“‘Customers depend upon the provision of safe reliable electricity every day.’ Jackson said. To assure the viability of the system, Jackson said ‘balanced resources, diversified generating capacity and dispatchable resources’ are needed.”

A Washington Examiner editorial, writing on the recent reliability issues in California has also touted the benefits of natural gas:

“The good news is that natural gas is an ideal partner for intermittent sources of power such as solar and wind. When the sun goes down, gas can be ramped up quickly to provide needed electricity. When the wind surges or dies down, gas can easily be turned up or down by degrees to compensate.”


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