In summary

California’s shift away from fossil fuels to less reliable renewable energy created the energy shortfall that led to blackouts.

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By Jim Cooper, Special to CalMatters

Assemblymember Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Elk Grove, represents California’s 9th Assembly District,

Behind the current wildfires are record temperatures driven by climate change. The highest temperature ever recorded anywhere in the world was 130 degrees last month in Death Valley. Recent rolling blackouts remind us of California’s wrenching energy crisis 20 years ago.

Are we better prepared today to avoid a repeat of such a debacle?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably not. 

The California Independent System Operator, which operates the electrical grid for the western United States, warned us last year that a serious heatwave could result in significant energy shortfalls. The reason: the state’s historic shift away from fossil fuels such as natural gas that can provide consistent power 24 hours a day, to intermittent and less reliable renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy.  

Nobody at the California Public Utilities Commission, California Energy Commission, and California Air Resources Board or the governor’s office did anything to adequately address the warning. 

For the first time since 2001, portions of the Golden State were powerless during 110-degree temperatures in the Central Valley, and as the worst public health crisis in 100 years continues to ravage the state. This massive failure put lives at risk, especially for our most vulnerable populations and those in disadvantaged communities.

Once again, disparities between wealthy coastal California and the Central Valley and other inland regions, where 20% of families live in poverty, are making the problem worse.

For Central Valley and inland region residents, the push toward renewable energy is adding to their struggle. For example, the extra $65 a year state residents pay to subsidize solar power amounts to a regressive tax mainly paid by working families who cannot afford to have solar themselves. The current structure allows solar customers to avoid paying for specific fixed costs that are a monthly expense for maintaining and operating the grid. The working poor and middle-class should not subsidize California’s lofty solar mandates for those who can afford to buy and install a solar system.  

California policy leaders have displayed a lack of empathy for residents struggling in a state with one of the highest poverty levels in the nation. Blue collar, middle-class families should not be punished by energy policies. Their requests for support should be heeded and responded too appropriately. 

The disparity between the haves and have-nots becomes clearer when you consider Californians pay the highest energy prices in the country. If you live inland, whether in the Central Valley or the Los Angeles basin, temperatures are hotter and commutes to work are longer. Californians pay over a dollar more per gallon of gas than the national average, and when it comes to electricity, data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows Californians pay 55% more than the rest of the nation. 

California policy leaders talk about income inequality, but it’s our policies that are driving a wider economic divide between the working-class, the poor and the rich.

As our nation grapples with institutional racism and income inequality, California cannot continue heaping the cost of “green” policies on marginalized and impoverished communities. People of color already face the brunt of COVID-19. Meanwhile, liberal elite policymakers sit, charging their electric cars (for which they received taxpayer rebates), straining the grid while working families lose their electricity and air conditioning during a horrendous heatwave. 

It is time meaningful equity issues such as the cost of living, electricity reliability and cost be made a priority in California’s energy policymaking. The well-being of working-families and communities of color rely on our action. 

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