The Weekend Wonk: California’s Brownouts – Were Renewables to Blame? (Spoiler – no.)

November 28, 2020

Above, presentation by Loretta Lynch, former President of California Public Utilities Commission, begins at about 19:30.

Wonk warning in effect.

PV Magazine:

Former CPUC President Loretta Lynch said California should review the rolling blackouts of mid-August and potential market manipulation in CAISO. Lynch spoke during a webinar held by the Clean Coalition. “I think it’s time for the California attorney general to investigate what happened at the ISO and, more than that, the ISO’s market practices that can’t keep the lights on,” Lynch said. “On Aug. 14, as Californians are being begged to conserve power, the ISO allowed over 4,000 MW of electricity to be exported out in the middle of an extreme heat wave despite the carefully constructed and planned-for demand forecast,” she said. SourceRTO Insider

Loretta Lynch, former president, California Public Utilities Commission in the San Diego Union Tribune:

Distract, deflect, divert. The electricity-market apologists point fingers at everything but the real culprits — themselves.

On Aug. 14, the utilities had already purchased plenty of electricity — more than 51,000 megawatts. That Friday, California encountered an unsurprising summer-peak electricity demand of 46,800 megawatts. The heat wave did not strain our electricity grid — the extra power needed at our homes due to COVID-19 was more than offset by already-closed businesses and restaurants. California had ample power.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom faced electricity blackouts and price spikes just like Gov. Gray Davis did in 2000. Like Davis, Newsom invoked emergency powers lifting power-plant pollution limits and ordered investigations. My 2000 investigationfound that Enron and energy traders caused the blackouts by gaming California’s new electricity markets.

Their manipulation skyrocketed prices and led California’s grid operator, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), to black out Californians. Repeatedly.

Then, energy traders and market apologists claimed that blackouts were California’s fault. They accused California’s clean-energy polices of creating grid-system problems and driving up electricity prices. Dick Cheney joined in to distract attention from the manipulation and price-gouging, blaming California’s energy-conservation and power laws instead of his marketeering fossil friends.

Now they’re at it again. Impugning California’s clean-power procurement that protects our environment, the culprits try to deflect attention from electricity markets that the CAISO — a private corporation — allows to harm Californians.

It doesn’t have to be this way. California need not stand by while the sons of Enronride again, now with President Donald Trump tweeting against California’s environmental leadership.

When the CAISO ordered blackouts, the utilities had already bought 115% of the power we needed. The utilities must purchase substantial reserve power and every day we pay for 15% more electricity than experts conservatively project we will use. Those reserves serve as an insurance policy, bought in advance, standing ready to call on.

On Aug. 14, San Diego did not face historic heat or demand, which peaked at less than 3,800 megawatts, never near a shortage and far less than its 4,890-megawatt historic peak demand. San Diego Gas & Electric had already purchased ample electricity reserves. But the CAISO ordered SDG&E to black out its customers anyway, when California still had 8.9% in already-purchased power reserves.

Compare the CAISO’s actions with California’s municipally-owned utilities, which kept the lights on during the same heat wave. Municipal utilities do not depend on markets for their electricity. They protect their customers from financial speculative electricity trading, charge lower prices and obtain concrete power-delivery commitments to ensure their electricity gets delivered, not diverted.

Falsely blaming California’s clean-energy policies diverts attention from the real culprits — power plants that didn’t run, power sellers we paid that didn’t deliver electricity when needed, and the CAISO, which mismanaged our grid. The CAISO’s actions caused prices to spike from $40 per megawatt hour to more than $1,500 per megawatt hour. While the CAISO blamed renewable energy and unexplained plant outages, its own market monitor repeatedly warned that CAISO markets allow financial speculators to cause problems that the CAISO has ignored.

What explains the CAISO’s actions? The CAISO wants California to reverse a 2010 decision to shutter or retrofit old, polluting power plants that dangerously warm the ocean. Most plants complied, but some refused. With those few shutdowns looming, the state Water Resources Control Board will meet Sept. 1 to decide whether to reverse its ocean and environmental protections.

It’s a time-honored tactic to blame clean-power policies instead of a market-based grid operator that doesn’t protect Californians. We should not allow the CAISO to scare us away from California’s clean-energy commitments.

Instead, we must act now to safeguard our electricity grid and economy. The CAISO should not be allowed to investigate itself. Instead, the state attorney general should investigate energy traders’ withholding and profiteering from electricity-market loopholes and the CAISO’s lax enforcement.

California should not be bullied or blustered into backtracking on clean energy.

Loretta Lynch, former president, California Public Utilities Commission

California System Operator (CaISO) letter to Governor Gavin Newsome:

Collectively, our organizations want to be clear about one factor that did not cause the rotating outage: California’s commitment to clean energy. Renewable energy did not cause the rotating outages. Our organizations understand the impacts wind and solar have on the grid. We have already taken many steps to integrate these resources, but we clearly need to do more. Clean energy and reliable energy are not contradictory goals.

5 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: California’s Brownouts – Were Renewables to Blame? (Spoiler – no.)”


  1. She blames it on California selling power out of state. California imports a quarter of its power. It undoubtedly has contracts and agreements to assure when it can buy that power. Perhaps these other states have done the same thing.

  2. doldrom Says:

    I’m with you, and have read other analyses along slightly different lines.

    But, in the public perception, we really did lose a round here.

  3. greenman3610 Says:

    not sure I go along with that.
    Overall, support for renewables has been
    strong, sustained, and in my experience,
    gaining ground.

  4. John Oneill Says:

    Support for solar and wind might be strong, but the results are feeble. Today, for about seven hours, California got 9 gigawatts of solar power, from 12 GW installed capacity, making up about fifty percent of its electricity. For the rest of the day, gas climbed from 20% to around 70%. The same day, Ontario had around nine gigawatts of nuclear, making up 50 to 70% of its generation, for 24 hours uninterrupted. California only has 2.2 GW of nuclear left, due to close in five years, but by running 24 hours, it still made nearly as much power as the solar. California’s 5GW of wind power were mostly MIA. Ontario’s emissions of CO2 per kw/h were, as usual, an order of magnitude lower.
    https://www.electricitymap.org/zone/US-CAL-CISO?wind=false&solar=false
    https://www.electricitymap.org/zone/CA-ON?wind=false&solar=false

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Is RE+storage better than it was before: Yes
      Will it continue to improve through the foreseeable future: Yes


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