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Power shut-offs focus attention on local energy debate

Springbok 3 Larger Aerial

This photovoltaic project, 8minute Solar Energy's 121-megawatt-dc Springbok 3 Solar Farm, was completed in 2019 in eastern Kern County. It is the final phase of a 1,500-acre project begun in 2015 that provides enough electricity to power more than 150,000 homes in the Los Angeles area.

Recent power shut-offs in California and the threat of more to come are bringing national attention to state energy-sourcing priorities hotly contested by Kern's oil industry.

After rolling blackouts struck at least 200,000 California residents the evening of Aug. 14, petroleum groups and their supporters in conservative political circles called the shut-offs proof the state's solar and wind investments were misplaced.

The renewable energy industry, which has a big presence in eastern Kern, has countered that its assets performed fine and that what's really needed is more battery storage investment, such as is already under development in the Mojave area.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for an investigation into the causes of the blackouts and it remains to be seen how the shut-offs might affect how California approaches its transition to greater renewable energy. But at a minimum, the rolling blackouts have focused scrutiny on anti-petroleum policymaking that has long been a thorn in the side of local oil producers.

FAMILIAR DEBATE

The question at the center of the shut-offs debate is the same one Kern's oil industry increasingly wrestles with: How will California balance conventional and renewable energy production as the state marches toward a lower-carbon future?

Kern's petroleum industry produces natural gas that conventional power plants can consume. But oil producers' bigger challenge under Newsom is his embrace of demands by climate change activists for an end to carbon emissions.

The governor has tightened oil permitting significantly since the departure of former Gov. Jerry Brown. The Newsom administration has couched the permitting changes in the context of making the state carbon neutral by 2045.

That goal entails not only increasing California's use of electric vehicles but also, the governor has said, reducing in-state oil production — a proposition Kern politicians fear would end tens of thousands of jobs in the county, decimate the local economy and undermine property tax revenues funding county government.

SEVERAL FACTORS

Observers say a combination of factors may have contributed to the rolling blackouts, including surging demand for air conditioning during the heat wave and the failure of some natural-gas-fired power plants to provide power as temperatures soared.

They also say electrical transmission capacity proved inadequate and that the state has been overconfident that renewables could fully replace more conventional sources including nuclear power.

Since the shut-offs, national publications including Forbes and The Wall Street Journal have published articles taking California policymakers to task for prioritizing renewables over conventional, natural-gas-fired power plants and nuclear energy.

On Wednesday, The Journal opened an editorial by noting state regulators have warned of more outages ahead.

"Welcome to California’s green new normal, a harbinger of a fossil-free world," the newspaper's editorial board wrote.

The California Republican Party, meanwhile, has put out messages asserting the blackouts are Newsom's fault. It has promoted the social media hashtag #NewsomBlackouts and called on the governor to "leave the power on."

A frequent critic of Newsom's anti-oil efforts is Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association trade group, which has many prominent local members. He said the shut-offs highlight the degree to which state legislators and activist groups are "transfixed on eliminating in-state oil and gas jobs rather than trying to accomplish a transition from one energy source to another."

GRAND PLAN

He said anti-petroleum forces have failed to come up with a grand plan for building transmission lines and backup batteries that he asserts are necessary before the state can make more reliable use of renewable energy.

"As a result, this (the blackouts) is what you get," he said. "You get an energy system that does not reflect the fifth-largest economy in the world."

Bakersfield oil producer Chad Hathaway said the situation underscores gaps in California's power supply. Solar isn't consistent and wind is a minor contributor, he said, while utility-scale batteries remain pricey and hydropower offers limited potential.

He urged greater use of natural gas, saying power plants that run on it can be switched on and off to provide "the needed base load to keep the system safe if you have enough generation capacity."

TRADING BLAME

Renewable power advocates have pointed out this month's blackouts happened in evening hours when solar plants aren't expected to be providing power anyway. They said that if anything the shut-offs demonstrate "peaker plants," which generally run on natural gas and only kick on when renewables are at a lull, failed to produce electricity when they were supposed to.

Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar & Storage Association trade group, said by email the state ought to put more emphasis on battery storage of energy.

She noted California's demand for energy peaks in the late afternoon, not evening, and that the state's supply of solar energy has consistently delivered to meet that peak.

"If not for all the solar power on the grid, the (past) weekend's outages would have been far longer and more widespread," she wrote.

BETTER TOGETHER

Local wind-energy consultant Linda Parker agreed battery storage will be part of the long-term solution to challenges associated with intermittent power supply.

She added that renewable energy has been a scapegoat for different problems over the years when, in fact, renewables and conventional energy can and should work in tandem.

"I just believe we all need to be moving forward in the right direction and, as generators, generating the most and the most efficient way that we possibly can," she said.

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf