California Democrats pose as green saints, though their climate and social-justice values often conflict. The latest example is the legislature’s plan to banish fossil fuels from the state electrical grid, which progressives aim to export nationwide.
The reason: California requires that 50% of power be generated from renewables such as solar and wind by 2030. Democrats recently passed legislation establishing a 100% requirement for 2045. Even Governor Jerry Brown ought to realize this energy experiment will punish Californians who can’t afford to live in Marin or Malibu.
Renewable prices have dropped thanks to technological improvements and cheap Chinese solar panel imports. The wholesale price of solar energy with the 30% federal tax credit is now nearly comparable to fossil fuels. But renewables impose other costs.
Start with backup power, which is needed when the sun isn’t shining. A 100% mandate would require natural gas plants that currently provide backup power—many recently constructed—to be retired and replaced with enormous batteries. Customers will pay for the stranded plants and the batteries, which will have to be replaced periodically.
Even batteries probably won’t capture all of the surplus solar energy pouring onto the grid on sunny days. So the state will have to find another outlet to avoid overloading the grid. In recent years California has paid Arizona to absorb its excess energy.
Then there are the state subsidies for renewable energy. Home and business owners that install solar panels can receive rebates and are paid the retail power rate for the excess energy they transmit to the grid, which increases the costs for everybody else. Most large-scale solar and wind farms are located in rural regions while natural gas plants are close to population centers along the coast. The cost to build and run power transmission lines from renewable plants is higher.
Managing the grid and balancing power sources will also become far more complicated and costly as renewable generation grows. Fellow sun-worshipper Australia provides a cautionary example.
In South Australia, wind and solar account for nearly 40% of power, which has caused rates to soar. South Australians pay more than three times as much for power than the average American. After storms felled transmission lines and caused power outages, the South Australian government tapped Tesla to build a battery the size of a football field capable of powering 30,000 homes for an hour to provide backup power in emergencies.
Tesla and the South Australian government have declined to disclose the battery cost. But the Electrek news site reported in January that Australia’s battery owners were paid 79 cents per kilowatt-hour—about 10 times the wholesale cost of power in the U.S.—to absorb surplus energy from the grid. That power can later be sold at a premium during shortages. Customers get charged twice—once for storing the excess power and then for discharging it.
California’s low-income residents will suffer the most since they spend more of their income on energy and live in hotter inland areas where more electricity is required for cooling. Workers in energy-intensive industries like manufacturing would be especially hard hit. Manufacturing employment has grown half as fast in California as nationwide since 2010.
All of this explains why a dozen Democrats in the state Assembly, most from low-income and minority areas, rebelled against the 100% renewable bill. “This is yet another in a laundry list of bills that are discriminatory to the people I represent,” said Adam Gray of Merced.
California’s power generation accounts for less than 0.2% of global CO2 emissions, so the mandate won’t matter to the climate. But green groups are hoping California’s fossil-fuel purge will coax politicians elsewhere to follow. Democrats running for Governor in Colorado, Florida, Illinois and Maryland have endorsed a 100% renewable mandate. Presidential aspirants Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders have introduced legislation in the Senate setting a nationwide 100% renewable target.
Governor Brown would be wise to veto the bill. As an alternative, he’s promoting a plan to integrate California’s grid with other western states to minimize the costs of its renewable binge. But the liberals who dominate state politics would apparently rather make poor people pay more for energy so they can pretend they’re saving the planet.