Commentary: Renewable Energy and Blackouts

California has just suffered electrical blackouts affecting over 200,000 people, and there will be more to come on hot summer evenings. Why? Because California has become infatuated with subsidizing solar and wind powered electricity, which disappears when the sun goes down and the wind stops. Vermont is heading down that same mistaken path.

A year ago the California Public Utilities Commission warned that the state could face an energy shortage on hot summer evenings as early as 2021. Its projection was off by a year. On August 14 from 200 to 250 thousand California residents experienced rolling blackouts.

Officialdom and the media have blamed the blackouts on a heat wave: too many people turned up too many air conditioners. But the same heat wave did not cause blackouts in Nevada and Arizona, or in California in equally hot past years. Why in California on August 14?

A Wall Street Journal editorial (8/17/20) explains: “Democrats have mandated that renewables account for 60% of [California’s] electricity by 2030, which has forced power providers to invest in renewable energy sources now to meet the deadline… During peak daylight hours, California produces a surplus of solar energy, and power generators may be ordered or paid to cut back their production so the grid isn’t overloaded.”

“But supply shortages can occur in the evening when solar energy plunges but demand remains high… California’s antipathy even to natural gas and nuclear power has resulted in higher energy prices and now power surpluses and shortages because renewables are intermittent energy sources.”

“Take out all of the solar and wind capacity,” energy analyst Francis Menton writes, “and California has only about 43 gigawatts of capacity to meet demand that could well exceed that on any hot summer day. And to get to that 43 GW, you would need all other facilities up and running at absolutely full capacity with no scheduled or unscheduled outages, which is not realistic. As more and more reliable fossil fuel and nuclear facilities get closed in favor of wind and solar, the problem looks set to worsen dramatically over the next several years.” 

Now let’s look at similarly renewable-infatuated Vermont. Over the past twenty years Vermont’s climate activists have built a full-throated movement to achieve Gov. Shumlin’s declared goal of meeting 90% of Vermont’s total energy demand with renewables – wind, solar, imported hydro, and wood – by 2050. 

Their particular bugaboo was the dependable 285 Mw Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, that emitted none of the greenhouse gases that those activists believe are driving the Menace of Global Warming. The plant’s owners, fed up with never-ending litigation costs, regular extortions to stay in operation, and price competition from suddenly plentiful natural gas-powered electricity, closed the plant in 2014.

The activists’ Shining Vision is a fossil-fuel free Vermont of super-insulated homes and businesses with electric heat pumps, and an increase from today’s 3,600 electric vehicles to 60,000 in the next four years, coupled with a ban on human settlement outside of approved downtown centers to reduce the need for transportation energy. 

The January 2020 State Energy Report says “These uses will likely add significantly to the amount of electricity used by Vermonters, and one of the more significant challenges will be managing this new load to minimize impacts on the electric system.”

Where will this new electricity come from, if nuclear and natural gas energy is ruled out? Doubling electricity imported from HydroQuebec would help, but VPIRG’s “Energy Independent Vermont” campaign would have to be abandoned. Vermont would have to find hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize an astonishing amount of renewables, mainly solar PV farms since Big Wind is now out of favor.

Forcing ratepayers to pay ever higher electric bills would cover some of those subsidies, but the most tempting revenue source would be a carbon tax on fossil fuels. For five years the activists have tried and failed to enact a carbon tax, to the point where they have quit openly advocating for it. And if they could tax fossil fuel out of Vermont, the carbon tax revenues would disappear. The most they can hope for now is getting Vermont into the multistate Transportation and  Climate Initiative (TCI), that would put increasingly heavier tax burdens on motor fuels, not to pay for highways and bridges, but to subsidize electrification and, yes, more renewable generation. 

Vermont energy expert Meredith Angwin, whose book on New England’s electric future is due out in October, tells us that “New England will probably have rolling blackouts by 2025, due to reliance on intermittent renewables plus just-in-time deliveries of natural gas. However, our blackouts will occur in winter, because that is when natural gas is used for heating and is less available to fuel our generating plants.” Not good.

 With steadily increasing electricity demand and the increasing reliance on renewables, Vermont’s blackout likelihood is likely to grow. No amount of (subsidized) solar farms and wind towers is going to provide enough electricity to prevent those blackouts on cold January days. It’s just a question of how soon.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute


Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Enter Comment Here:

  • David Bresett
    commented 2020-08-28 09:46:28 -0400
    Libertarians want to just let capitalism be the guide for the future? You just can’t have it both ways.
    Sadly, what the past has taught most people is, growth is the problem, if libertarianism means growth, than it’s going against the future of the planet.
    Solar to me means bite the bullet. Shut out the lights. Light a warm fire. Live like humans are meant to live.