California’s not-for-profit electric utilities provide safe power

By Patrick Welch, Special to CALmatters

Editor’s note: This commentary is a reaction to CALmatters’ series, “Frayed Wires,” which was posted on Jan. 16, Jan. 31, and Feb. 14.

CALmatters’ series, Frayed Wires, identifies some valid problems, but leaves readers with a misleading impression the entire electric grid is coming apart at the seams. Some portions of the state’s grid may have “frayed wires.”

But the reality is California’s publicly owned, not-for-profit electric utilities are providing safe, continuous and sustainable power to about one in every four Californians, with rates about 17 percent lower on average than those of investor-owned utilities, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The CALmatters series describes the electric system as “fragile, unstable and increasingly vulnerable” and finds the “100-year-old system … is coming apart.”

These are gross over-generalizations. California’s publicly-owned utilities maintain their electric generation, transmission and distribution systems in accordance with rigorous safety inspection and maintenance standards.

One of the stories also says power lines are located above ground in fire-prone areas because it “makes the most financial sense.”

California not-for-profit, publicly-owned utilities, by their very nature, don’t make money on infrastructure investments.

All California electric utilities have an obligation to serve: If a neighborhood is built where there’s a high fire threat, the utility must connect electric service to the area. Another factor to remember is that state law, key to California’s efforts on fighting climate change, requires electric utilities to procure 60 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2030.

This mandate means that new solar arrays, wind farms and other resources must be connected to the grid.

The CALmatters articles do raise some legitimate challenges for the electric grid. An important one is the ability to maintain affordable electric rates for customers. There’s increasing pressure on electric utilities to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time that many customers are installing solar on their roofs to generate their own electricity.

This can lead to less energy consumption, and less revenue, which places financial pressure on utilities as they continue to meet and exceed state-established obligations.

Another challenge is electric reliability. Utilities are beginning to examine what a zero-carbon electric supply would look like, and safe energy storage technologies are needed that can supply zero-carbon electricity over long periods of time.

Currently, most publicly owned utilities rely on clean natural gas power plants to guarantee reliable power, and that will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future as the energy storage market evolves.

Lithium ion batteries–the most common option for storing electricity generated by solar panels–as they’re designed today can only provide power for up to four hours. This limitation is a problem during prolonged cloud cover or other weather that limits solar generation, or when electric infrastructure is taken offline for repairs.

The rollout of electric vehicles is also a challenge. The growth of electric vehicles needed to meet California’s statewide greenhouse gas emission reduction goals can only happen if electric rates stay affordable. Higher electric rates will dissuade Californians from purchasing EVs, as their “fuel” costs would rise significantly.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently called for a process to “map out longer-term strategies, not just for the utilities’ future, but for California’s energy future.” We agree.

California’s publicly owned utilities serve vastly different communities and one-size solutions do not fit all. Rather than over-generalize and exaggerate, we need to share the truth, focus on facts and collaborate on solutions.

Patrick Welch is the legislative director for energy at the California Municipal Utilities Association. He can be reached at [email protected]

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