CAISO Temp Graph 0513

Chart showing heat waves that occurred in 2006, 2015 and 2017 relative to the August 2020 heat wave that caused blackouts in California.

California energy officials are drawing a direct link between climate change and past and possible future blackouts, but a closer examination of the situation reveals that such a connection is more of a theoretical link than a technical reality.

Alice Busching Reynolds, named in December 2021 by Gov. Gavin Newsom to head the California Public Utilities Commission, recently stated that blackouts might occur this summer because state planning has not adequately accounted for climate change. Planning officials say resources are about 1,700 MW short this summer for the evening net demand period and up to 5,000 MW short by 2025.

Reynolds on May 6 kicked off a presentation by state agencies for media by framing the reliability issues in 2020 and 2021 as a direct result of climate change. In August 2020, blackouts occurred on Aug. 14 and 15 due to insufficient energy supply. Grid supplies were also tight last summer, but blackouts were prevented.

The presentation, which was introduced by a communications staffer from Newsom's office, began with a reference to "backed [sic] to back years of energy reliability challenges driven by climate change in 2020 and 2021."

Historically, the CPUC and other agencies have looked backwards at trends, demand forecasts and matching demand with supply, but this process has now been overwhelmed by extreme heat caused by climate change, according to Reynolds.

"Before we started seeing the extreme impact of climate change, that usually provided an accurate picture that we could use to go forward in our planning process," Reynolds said. "We know that at this point, climate change impacts are really outpacing all the predictions that we've made. It seems like every time we make a prediction, we see that come into reality sooner and more intensely than we had predicted."

I tackled this discussion in an October 2020 Bottom Lines, titled "Has Climate Change Become a Blanket Excuse for Poor Energy Planning?" (see CEM No. 1611).

I don't want to cover the same ground here, other than reiterating some points by myself and others back then: August 2020 had a similar heat wave as summer 2006, when scorching heat was also widespread across the U.S. and temperatures topped 90 degrees in states you wouldn't expect, like Alaska. But there were no California blackouts in 2006 (though hundreds of deaths were attributed to the heat), even though energy demand was higher by thousands of megawatts than in August 2020.  

Before a root-cause analysis of the August blackouts by state agencies came out in January 2021, climate change had not been directly mentioned in connection with the blackouts.

In December 2019, when then-California Independent System Operator CEO Steve Berberich warned the CAISO board of upcoming reliability challenges, he mentioned the evening generation ramp, caused by the drop-off of intermittent solar generation, and declining imports—not anything about climate change (see CEM No. 1570).

Reynolds during the presentation also stated that climate change is causing a reduction in generators' ability to produce power, but climate change did not cause any power reductions in August 2020. One plant went off line on Aug. 14 because of plant trouble, and on Aug. 15, a generator unexpectedly ramped down due to a dispatch error. The root-cause analysis did mention that solar generation fell by 1,900 MW between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Aug. 15 because of storm clouds, and wind fell by 1,200 MW between 3:15 and 4 p.m. on that day.

Climate-related grid effects mentioned by Reynolds in the presentation were the shutting down of the Hyatt hydroelectric plant at Lake Oroville in 2021 because of drought, and the Bootleg Fire in Oregon in July and August 2021 that took out 3,000 MW of import capacity into CAISO.

Another factor, she said, is supply chain problems that are causing storage projects to be delayed. I explored this topic in January 2021, when I took a look at CAISO's reliance on a rapid buildout of energy storage to maintain summer reliability (see CEM No. 1623). Also, Reynolds pointed out the planned retirement of 6,000 MW of generation.

The CPUC president also discussed the 11.5 GW of new resources ordered by the CPUC in 2021 and thousands of megawatts of energy storage coming on line, as well as new demand-response and efficiency programs to help with reliability.

"The only thing we expect is to see new and surprising conditions," Reynolds said. "Climate change is putting Californians at risk of additional outages."

Directly after Reynolds' comments, CAISO Vice President Mark Rothleder stated that the problem comes at the evening net peak, when demand is still high but solar is coming off line—the same thing Berberich warned of in 2019. Wind generation also tends to be low when it's hot, Rothleder said.

Even with additional planned capacity and the 11.5 GW of new procurement—which is being affected by supply chain issues—CAISO is projected to be about 1.8 GW short for the evening net peak by 2025, Rothleder said.

After the press call, major corporate media went along with this take. "Climate Change Is Straining California's Energy System, Officials Say," read a headline in The New York Times. "California Power Officials Warn of Power Shortfalls This Summer Amid Increasing Strain From Climate Change," the Weather Channel said.

Blaming climate change for grid problems that were more directly caused by energy planning and policies gives politicians, regulators and lawmakers a convenient "out" when public rage descends as the grid goes dark. It also heightens the perceived urgency for California to continue on its current path of decarbonization.

However, if the next few summers see numerous blackouts in California, it will give critics of the state's energy policies much ammo and will reveal whether the state's planning choices will be a national example, or a cautionary tale.

The CPUC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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