In summary

The move to renewables isn’t just about fighting climate change, it’s about stopping energy pollution in low-income communities.

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By V. Manuel Perez, Special to CalMatters

V. Manuel Perez, a former California Assembly majority leader, is a Riverside County Supervisor, District4@rivco.org.

Last August, hundreds of thousands of Californians saw their lights go out when climate change produced a record-breaking heat wave that drove peak electricity demand to unsustainable levels. 

The state agencies overseeing the electric grid have acknowledged they failed to plan for such unprecedented demand, and they are now offering our leaders various options going forward.

These agencies have responded with strong analyses of the problem and an awareness of the choices facing the state. Yet it’s become clear that the state’s capacity to react to the blackouts is no match for the accelerating temperatures brought on by global warming and the growing need for environmental justice in communities bearing a disproportionate burden of our continuing reliance on fossil fuels.

The planning process for California’s electric needs is literally rooted in a framework developed prior to the passage of SB 100, the legislation passed more than two years ago that has put the state on the road to 100% renewable electricity. 

It’s no coincidence SB 100 was authored by a person of color, former state Sen. Kevin de León. The move to renewables isn’t just about fighting climate change, it’s about stopping energy pollution in low-income communities. 

Consider, California currently relies on nearly 80 gas-fired power plants, or peaker plants, to help keep the lights on during high demand. Half of these peaker plants are in disadvantaged communities, according to state data. 

These plants cost twice as much to operate as normal power plants, they emit twice as much carbon dioxide and up to 20 times the amount of nitrous oxides – responsible for high rates of respiratory illnesses like asthma, heart disease and cancer. And California’s peaker plants tend to operate on days when ozone concentrations surpass federal standards, worsening local air quality conditions.

The move to 100% renewables is the opportunity to change this. In particular, long-duration stored energy will assure we can meet peak electric demands and avoid blackouts, while helping us close down these polluting peaker plants. Making this happen means pulling the trigger now and building the long-duration energy infrastructure the state needs as it moves to an all-renewable energy future. 

There are many clean, long-duration storage technologies in use today ranging from lithium-ion batteries to geothermal generation to pumped hydro storage, which alone supplies more than 90% of the world’s renewable energy storage needs. We need to rapidly expand our use of these and other developing technologies.

The state’s energy agencies have outlined the need for a clean energy storage infrastructure in their latest reports. The dilemma seems to be: do we stick with our usual approaches to create the needed storage or do we act now? Do we rely on the electric companies to build it or does the state need to step in and act in some instances?

The answers seem obvious to those of us not in the weeds of the state’s regulatory processes. When the lights are going out and the poor are unnecessarily forced to breathe dirty air, we need to act now and not rely on the capacity of the private sector alone. 

Moreover, if we tied development of clean energy storage to the needs and benefits of low income communities, the pay-offs can be enormous. For instance, there’s a proposed and fully permitted pumped storage project in eastern Riverside County near Eagle Mountain at the brownfield site of an abandoned iron-ore mine that would provide 1,300 megawatts of clean energy storage. Building this project would deliver a powerful economic boost to one of the most impoverished areas of the state, the area I represent, and it would provide enough clean energy storage to replace two-thirds of the polluting peaker plants in California’s underserved communities or all of the peaker plants in Riverside County, save one.

The point is, the solutions are in front of us. They may not be easy, they never are. But the time to act is now. Blackouts or a return to fossil fuels and perpetuating their unhealthy impacts are not the answers. 

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