How to Solve the California Electricity Problem: Try Natural Gas!

Tom Tanton
President, T 2 & Associates

 

California has an electricity problem and there are many to blame but the solution in front of all eyes is natural gas as an alternative source of heat.

I sit here at my computer this morning after suffering through the latest “PSPS” (public safety power shutoff), which left me without electricity a total of ten full days in October.  Kind of ironic given my 45+ years in energy policy–and frustrating too since this is less an Act of God than an Act of Man–or Government.

I understand the need to reduce fire risk in California’s hot dry climate where utilities (such as PG&E) need to de-energize power lines lest they spark when blown down or branches fall on them.  But there’s got to be a better way than leaving literally millions in the dark for days, only to get maybe six hours of power before losing it again for 2–3 days.

As an Indian friend said half in jest “If I’d known it was going to be like this, I’d have stayed in Delhi.”

California

PG&E’s outage map today

Who to Blame

Much has been said about who’s or what’s to blame:

  • The greed of the involved utilities;
  • Regulator/Legislature’s distracting virtue signaling and general incompetence;
  • The environmentalists’ refusal to allow vegetation management under the wires
  • Everybody’s reluctance to pay for undergrounding all the wires.

The problem is not limited to the regulated private utilities (called ‘public utility’ for some arcane reason); the large fire threatening the Getty Center has been traced to a transmission line owned by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), a government owned-and-operated utility. (I guess government greed competes with private-utility greed.)

Natural Gas to the Rescue?

Nevertheless, you’d think the Governor and others would be actively trying to make things better, rather than just pointing fingers. Well you’d be wrong … they are making it worse by taking away the one alternative to electricity that can provide cooking and hot water and space heat and does so much more efficiently.

I’m talking about natural gas; not the natural gas used in power plants to generate electricity which is then sent to homes and offices, but the natural gas piped around (some of) our cities that is used directly as the leading alternative to electricity. Natural gas already provides three times the energy at one third the cost. The one alternative to the use of electricity for critical public health and safety…want hot water for sanitation or to cook or just to stay warm in the dead of winter? Turn to natural gas.  Oh wait…

‘Deep Decarbonization’ Threat

California state officials and electric utilities are moving to eliminate the direct use of natural gas—state officials because it ‘contributes’ to climate change and electric utilities because they see a potential new, and large, market. Never mind those same utilities are having a hard time keeping the lights on as it is.

The LA Times ran an article on October 22 outlining the growing divisions.  But don’t think it’s limited to California: electrification (the term used for ‘electrify everything’) and the elimination of the direct use of natural gas is picking up steam in other states and at the Federal level (see herehere, and here.

In fact it’s garnered sufficient interest that electrification proponents hold a big ol’ conference soiree’. Why, they’re even talking about electric airplanes. One would think (at least THIS one thinks) that the makers of backup generators, often fueled with natural gas, LPG or propane analogues, would be fighting this trend tooth and nail.

National and most state energy policies for several decades have sought to increase energy diversity for electric generation. What is disheartening, disingenuous  and downright dangerous is the move to eliminate diversity in how energy is delivered.

For electricity that’s called transmission and distribution, or T&D. If diversity in the types of energy provided (wind, solar, nuclear, gas fired combined cycles, hydroelectric, etc.) is good…and is provided by consumers making free and informed choices…then wouldn’t the delivery mechanisms also need to be diverse?

After all the one major cause of customers being offline has to do with disruption of the T&D systems: tress falling on wires, wires getting blown down by high winds, etc. In work done by LBNL, distribution outages (the smaller lower voltage systems that run to individual customers) were found to be responsible for more than 95% of customer outages, when measured by duration of outage.

All told, electricity is extremely reliable, with the median value of System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI) for North American utilities of just under two hours per year. A lot of Californians exceeded that on one day, and the next and next. But natural gas delivery is also exceedingly reliable, partly due to the fact that natural gas systems include storage, not yet available with electricity. And much of that infrastructure is already underground protected from the weather.

Conclusion

Maybe it’s time to serve the consumer who just wants hot water, warm air, and a home cooked meal. Stop the insane electrify everything movement. I may sit in the dark, but at least I’ll be warm and fed.

And watch out. Much more pain and a lot more of us with vote with our feet and move to Texas.

This article on the California electricity problem reposted, with permission, from Master Resource blog. Now a consultant, Tom Tanton was, until 2000, the Principal Policy Advisor with the California Energy Commission (CEC) in Sacramento, California. He began his career there in 1976. He developed and implemented policies and legislation on energy issues of importance to California, and U.S. and International markets, including electric restructuring, gasoline and natural gas supply and pricing, energy facility siting and permitting, environmental issues, power plant siting, technology development, and transportation. Mr. Tanton held primary responsibility for comparative economic analysis, environmental assessment of new technologies, and the evaluation of alternatives under state and federal environmental law. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *