As states across the nation ponder what to do next on energy policy, there is no case study more important than California. One of the world’s largest economies, with nearly 30 million inhabitants, California for decades has lived on the progressive edge of American energy policy. The state’s renewable energy mandate of 33% by 2020 has served as a beacon for anti-fossil fuel advocates nationwide. But as PACE wrote recently, “California isn’t a beacon of progress; it’s a lighthouse, showing the path to disaster.”
The problem with California’s experience is that the results promised by renewable energy advocates have been slow in forthcoming, or not at all. Just as important, the drive toward deploying more renewables has only heightened the need to build more fossil fuel generation. Starting to sound more like a warning siren than a clarion call?
A recent report detailed how California’s Riverside County has become the epicenter of the state’s renewable power movement, producing more solar power than anywhere else in the United States. But consider one of the impacts on the local economy. A 500-megawatt natural gas plant in the county pays nearly $6 million in property taxes, while a solar plant built just a few miles away pays less than $100,000. And the jobs impact?
“On the face of it, it looks like a good deal. They talk about all these huge jobs and long-term benefits to the county. The truth is, it’s a very short term,” Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit said. “We’re going to be carrying the burden of having these types of facilities for decades to come, and because of the incentives that have been provided by federal and state government, there’s virtually nothing left for the county government or the local people to get benefit back after the small number of construction jobs are gone.”
That’s a far cry from the claim made yesterday by Alabama Environmental Council Director Michael Churchman that transitioning to renewables will create stronger local economies. “Economic and environmental interests work in tandem,” Churchman tells us. Of course, his point of view is speculation, while California is living the reality. It’s the same reality that Spain lived through, as it lost two existing jobs for every one renewable energy job it created. You might call that ‘applied math.’
Stanford economist Frank Wolak, a California energy expert, says solar could boost consumer energy bills up to 50 percent, a conclusion similar to the one made by the state’s Public Utilities Commission. In fact, two recently approved solar power plants in California ranged from $100 to $200 per megawatt hour, compared to the $16 consumers will pay for natural gas generation. Supervisor Benoit explains, “But still, getting back to the old equation, do you want to spend a little bit more to be green? And the legislature and the governor in California have said clearly, we’re going to do that.”
Meanwhile, in Georgia, solar industry advocates like Mark Bell of the Georgia Solar Energy Association, are telling consumers that more solar energy is going to bring electricity rates down. Who are we to believe? Leaders in California who are dealing with the realities of aggressive renewable energy mandates, who oversee some of the nation’s highest power bills and who believe the jobs argument for renewables is overhyped? Or environmental groups and solar industry spokespeople who are asking us to believe that the laws of energy economics wreaking havoc in California don’t apply to Southeastern states?
Now for the irony. More renewables in California is meaning more fossil fuels. Consider the picture painted by the Los Angeles Times in a recent report.
“The Delta Energy Center, a power plant about an hour outside San Francisco, was roaring at nearly full bore one day last month, its four gas and steam turbines churning out 880 megawatts of electricity to the California grid,” the report explains. “On the horizon, across an industrial shipping channel on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, scores of wind turbines stood dead still. The air was too calm to turn their blades — or many others across the state that day. Wind provided just 33 megawatts of power statewide in the mid-afternoon, less than 1% of the potential from wind farms capable of producing 4,000 megawatts of electricity.”
In California, it is not uncommon for local power grids to lose as much as a thousand megawatts of wind and solar generation in as little as half an hour. That’s as much generation as a nuclear reactor or a small coal-fired plant. Such volatility on such a large scale threatens California’s grid with instability, meaning more back-up generation from fossil fuels must be built, mostly from natural gas.
“This issue is someplace between a significant concern and a major problem,” says electricity system expert Severin Borenstein, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “There is definitely going to be a need for more reserves.”
The price to California electricity ratepayers of building such reserve generation, on top of the already high cost of renewable power, will likely be billions of dollars in the coming years. So much for the notion that renewable power will save anyone money. In fact, California is showing us just the opposite. It’s a lesson to which lawmakers and policy leaders across the rest of the U.S. should pay close attention.