Newsom plans to keep lights on in CA — with fossil fuels

A controversial plan from Governor Gavin Newsom would reshape the way business works on the California power grid, potentially helping to extend the life of oceanfront gas plants and the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. , making it easier for wind and solar farm developers to bypass local governments. oppose, and restrict environmental considerations to all types of energy projects.

State lawmakers could vote as early as Wednesday night on the polarization law, the text of which was revealed late Sunday.

The bill would give the Department of Water Resources unprecedented authority to build or purchase energy from any facility that could help keep the lights on over the next several summers – including polluting diesel generators. pollution and four gas-fired power plants along the Southern California coast. was originally supposed to close in 2020 but was rescued by state officials.

Those decisions will be exempt from the normal public input process under the California Environmental Quality Act – and approved by agencies like the California Coastal Commission and local air quality counties. Browser.

A separate provision would allow companies building solar farms, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries – as well as power lines to connect those facilities to the grid – to participate in the approval process. fast without requiring the county/district government to sign it. . Public officials will be required to conduct environmental assessments and approve or reject such projects within nine months. Legal challenges to any project approval will need to be resolved by state courts within nine months.

Technically, the bill is a continuation of the state budget passed by lawmakers earlier this month. It’s part of the Newsom administration’s frantic effort to tackle parallel challenges: the risk of power outages and the growing dangers of the climate crisis.

It’s been nearly two years since intermittent power outages hit the state on two excruciatingly hot August evenings when there wasn’t enough electricity to power millions of air conditioners after sunset and Solar panels stop generating electricity.

Electric utilities have been trying to keep the lights on ever since – barely. But stopping power outages is only becoming more difficult as emissions from fossil fuels heat the planet, extreme droughts deplete hydroelectric lakes and, increasingly, wildfires. interrupt power lines.

The Bootleg Fire in July 2021 in southern Oregon

The Bootleg Fire in July 2021 in southern Oregon knocked down several power lines carrying power to California, nearly resulting in a total blackout in the Golden State.


Newsom last month by asking lawmakers to approve a $5.2 billion “strategic electrical reliability reserve” that would cover emergency power supplies over the next several years. But he surprised many observers with Sunday’s proposal for the Department of Water Resources to secure those supplies through a special review process at the California Energy Commission, where critics suggested that could limit opportunities for community input and lead to more pollution in low-income communities of color. .

“Strategic contingency” is an insurance policy that will only be used when we are faced with the possibility of shortfalls during events due to extreme climate change (e.g. heatwaves, wildfires disrupting transmission, etc.). lead),” the Newsom administration said in a summary of the bill.

But the governor’s proposal has startled climate activists, energy developers and local officials.

In a letter of protest Tuesday, two dozen groups – including the Sierra Club, the California Environmental Justice Coalition, the National Parks Conservancy. and Audubon – said Newsom’s plan had barely undergone any public review.

Alexis Sutterman, director of energy equity at the California Environmental Justice Coalition, called the bill “extremely dangerous.”

“It is investing billions of dollars in maintaining fossil fuel infrastructure online at a time when we should do everything we can to avoid fossil fuel use, both for equity and for the public,” Sutterman said. our climate,” Sutterman said.

Particularly controversial are gas-fired power plants in Redondo Beach, Huntington Beach, Long Beach and Oxnard that are expected to close by the end of 2020 under a decades-old policy requiring power plants to coastal stops sucking up large amounts of ocean water – a process known as “single cooling” that kills fish and other marine life. In a series of decisions following a power outage in August 2020, the state’s water supply board agreed to keep the plants in operation for another three years.

If the Legislature approves Newsom’s plan, the Department of Water Resources could buy energy from those plants after 2023 — or even buy the facilities outright, critics fear. That possibility left Mayor Bill Brand of Redondo Beach puzzled.

“We feel overtaken twice,” says Brand. “These retirement dates were fixed 12 years ago.”

Mayor Bill Brand of Redondo Beach has struggled for years to close the gas-fired power plant in his city.

Mayor Bill Brand of Redondo Beach has struggled for years to close the gas-fired power plant in his city.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Ana Matosantos, Newsom’s cabinet secretary, told The Times that gas plants will not be allowed to open after 2023 without approval from the state’s water management board – a disputed interpretation. by climate activists, who say the bill explicitly states otherwise.

Matosantos also downplayed speculation that the bill would save the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, now slated to close in 2026. While she acknowledged that the Department of Water Resources could, in theory, buy some electricity. from the nuclear plant, she says, remains open to the past. The year 2026 will require additional legislation, as well as approval by federal agencies.

Under Newsom’s proposal, the Department of Water Resources could also contract large energy storage projects such as lithium-ion batteries. Any newly purchased diesel backup generators will have to be decommissioned after July 2023.

The bill also includes $200 million for programs that pay people and businesses to use less energy when the grid is stressed.

For longtime clean energy lobbyist V. John White, Newsom’s plan was a necessary crime. The Public Utilities Commission, he said, has put California in an impossible position by not aligning climate-friendly resources that can provide energy after sunset – such as batteries, geothermal plants and long-term energy storage – even though the agency already knew. for more than a decade that coastal gas plants will close, and as of 2016 the Diablo Canyon reactors will soon join them.

“These are extraordinary situations,” White said. “The tragedy here is that we have a lot of wind, solar and geothermal to buy, but we’ve waited so long that we’re now having trouble getting it online in time to meet demand.” our request.”

Even as Newsom manages to keep the lights on, White said, for the next few summers, the governor needs to demonstrate stronger climate leadership and develop a long-term strategy to accelerate renewables while avoiding power supply emergencies.

Another controversial provision in Newsom’s proposal could help in that respect, by allowing wind and solar developers to seek approval more quickly from the Energy Commission – though even those companies aren’t sure how much of a difference it will make.

Sheep graze on the Shiloh II wind farm in Montezuma Hills near Rio Vista, California.

Sheep graze on the Shiloh II wind farm in Montezuma Hills near Rio Vista, California.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Local governments have sometimes emerged as a serious obstacle to clean energy, with San Bernardino County supervisors banning wind and solar farms on more than 1 million acres in 2019 and Shasta County supervisors will vote next month on the wind farm ban. Shasta and Humboldt counties have both rejected proposed wind farms in recent years – a phenomenon increasingly common across the western US as locals worry about environmental damage and reductions opinion.

The big solar companies have focused on building better relationships with local officials rather than trying to circumvent county approvals, several people familiar with industry thinking told The Times. Chief Executive Officer Nancy Rader said, California Wind Energy Assn.

The plan to approve faster solar and wind power has also attracted the support of the International Association of Electrical Workers. Developers who choose to participate in the streamlining process will need to hire union staff through project labor agreements.

Marc Joseph, an attorney representing IBEW, said: “We think it’s a wise balance of choice for developers who are consistently profitable and want to be on the Energy Commission, the body extremely competent and competent and talented.”

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Major environmental groups have not taken a stand on Newsom’s proposal to streamline project approval, after an earlier provision would remove additional layers of review – including from the Commission. Coast – removed.

However, the local government is furious.

In a letter opposing the bill, California State Assn. California counties, Urban Counties, the Rural County Representative of California and the Federation of California Cities say renewable energy facilities “can have tremendous impacts on local communities.” They said the Energy Commission’s approval process was “too broad, usurping local control, excluding local governments from meaningful participation in major development projects within their jurisdiction.” their own and could lead to more lawsuits.”

Meanwhile, the Water Resources Department’s roadmap is “an unprecedented change of law without a policy hearing,” said Catherine Freeman, legislative representative at the county association. She calls it “the complete removal of local permitting.”

Michael Figueroa, left, places panels at the Westlands Solar Park construction site in Kern County in 2021.

Michael Figueroa, left, places panels at the Westlands Solar Park construction site in Kern County in 2021.

(Gary Kazanjian / For The Times)

Even if the bill passes, California will face numerous challenges as it tries to achieve 100% clean energy by 2045, as required by state law — a timeline that Newsom said should be accelerated. . The state will need to build solar farms, wind turbines and other clean energy sources at an unprecedented rate – especially as the growth of electric cars and electric heating drives demand. Electrical Power.

Over the next few summers, all eyes will be on the California Independent Systems Operator, which is responsible for balancing supply and demand across most of the state – and calls for shutdowns if there isn’t enough electricity to power the system. work.

Was the grid operator involved in drafting Newsom’s proposal? That is not entirely clear. Spokesperson Anne Gonzales said only that the agency “provided technical support and considered the specific terms it would require.” [our] joining. “

“Strategic reserves are primarily intended to support reliability starting in the summer of 2023,” she said in an email. Newsom plans to keep lights on in CA — with fossil fuels

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