As goes California, so goes the nation. Looking at the current situation in the Golden State, that adage could be a scary notion.

In its zeal to become carbon neutral, California has placed a lot of its eggs in the renewable power generation basket. Like many other states, it made significant investments in renewable energy, but neglected to maintain a healthy level of baseload power and its transmission and distribution networks. Renewables are intermittent power sources, but the state had a backup plan. They would purchase electricity from other power producers, which more than likely was generated by burning fossil fuels.

The plan failed. When California needed electricity most, it was not available. The problem began to surface during a mid-August heat wave. The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) was forced to curtail load prior to losing its contingency reserves. Without those reserves, the CAISO operations would have placed the interconnected electricity system in the western United States at an unacceptable risk of instability or collapse. Under CAISO’s direction, a 1,000-megawatt (MW) curtailment (brown out) occurred on August 14, and a 470-MW curtailment occurred on August 15. CAISO estimated that these curtailments affected millions of homes and businesses. CAISO barely avoided another curtailment on August 17 and 18.

On September 3, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency and the situation would only get worse. The peak demand forecast within the California balancing authority area for September 6 was again expected to exceed capacity. CAISO directed all generators in its balancing authority area to produce their maximum capability, but the three gas generators, which operate as peakers, informed CAISO they could not follow the directive without exceeding federal air quality standards. CAISO issued an urgent request to the Department of Energy (DOE), saying the loss of power to homes and local businesses in the areas affected by curtailments presented a greater risk to public health and safety than exceeding those air quality standards.

Acknowledging a grid reliability emergency that could take down the West, U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette issued a Section 202(c) emergency order to preserve grid reliability. Brouillette also encouraged California policymakers to evaluate why their grid was unable to handle the extreme stress, which he believes could be alleviated with the support of greater baseload power generation.

As this edition of Coal Age was going to press, California announced plans to convert all cars to electricity by 2035. Coal Age supports the greater use of electricity worldwide, but California should get its priorities in order first.