In summary

If we are serious about avoiding blackouts and continuing our progress toward an emission-free grid, we must expand nuclear and hydroelectric power.

By Jordan Cunningham, Special to CalMatters

Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham, a Republican from San Luis Obispo, represents the 35th Assembly District, Assemblymember.Cunningham@assembly.ca.gov.

The year is unknown. Roving bands of highway gangs patrol California’s vast interstate system, searching for ever-dwindling sources of power. Road Warriors compete for what energy can be scavenged across a crumbling infrastructure.  

While California’s version of “Mad Max” is unlikely to happen any time soon, the state is experiencing the worst blackouts since the energy crisis of the early 2000s – and there is little reprieve on the horizon. 

In the year 2020, millions of people in the country’s most technologically-advanced state could be without power. It’s not because of corporate greed or malfeasance this time, but rather because of a self-inflicted policy wound.

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For years, the state prioritized specific forms of green energy, like wind and solar, at all cost – and to the exclusion of other carbon-free energy sources like nuclear and hydroelectric. 

The problem is that science has shown that wind doesn’t always blow for 24 hours a day, and the sun never shines for 24 hours a day in California. So, as we have increased our reliance on these clean but intermittent forms of energy production, we have left our state more and more vulnerable to rolling blackouts.

Our reliance on intermittent energy production also increases costs for families. When demand for electricity exceeds California-based supply after the sun goes down, the state buys power from out-of-state energy producers. These out-of-state energy barons charge exorbitant rates, which eventually get passed onto businesses and families.

This crisis, however, should not be a referendum on our nation-leading transition to emission-free sources of energy. It is proper that we continue to decarbonize. Instead, the solution must be clean energy diversification. We must maintain and develop clean base-load energy production like nuclear and hydro, paired with an aggressive build-out of storage infrastructure.

The good news: We already have a network of emission-free sources of base-load energy.

The largest single source of emission-free power in the state is the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County. This single plant produces nearly 10% of the state’s electricity – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Also critical is our state’s extensive network of hydroelectric dams. Hydroelectric power also works at night and when there is no wind.

The bad news: State law refuses to recognize the clean, emission-free power from these sources as part of its Renewable Portfolio Standard, which dictates what sources of power will be counted toward the state’s renewable energy mandate. The short-sighted decision to exclude both nuclear and hydroelectric power devalues the energy produced by these sources.

This misguided policy choice enabled the State Lands Commission to force the closure of Diablo Canyon. When the plant closes for good in 2025, we will lose 10% of our state’s electricity overnight. There can be no doubt that this will compound our energy problems like high costs, blackouts and an over-reliance on dirty power from out of state. 

If policymakers are serious about both avoiding rolling blackouts and continuing our progress toward an emission-free grid, we have to diversify and prioritize clean base-load power. We must utilize an all-of-the-above approach that includes and expands on existing nuclear and hydroelectric power. And we must make major investments into creative energy storage solutions so that power generated via solar and wind sources can be used even when the sun is down and the wind stops blowing.

The time is now to make intelligent choices with our clean energy programs. If we don’t start diversifying our energy sources and building out storage, a Mad Max-like scramble for energy becomes an unpleasant potential reality.

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Read about answers to 7 burning questions about California’s rolling blackouts.

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