In a bit of awkward timing, a severe heat wave is boosting electrical demand in California, causing the state to beg citizens to delay charging electric vehicles until after 9 p.m. This “flex alert” comes just days after the state’s Air Resources Board voted to require all new light duty vehicles sold after 2035 to be either battery electric, plug-in electric hybrids or hydrogen powered, a decision that will – in the future – further add to the total demand on an electrical grid that is unready to meet it.
This has produced a substantial amount of finger-pointing and snickering at California’s expense. But is that mockery fair? Well, not wholly. But it’s not wholly unfair, either.
An electrical production system must be designed to meet normal expected peak demand, or blackouts will occur regularly. But building it out to a level where it can meet unusually high demand means spending a lot of money for resources that are rarely used. It’s like buying an extra car that you only use once a year.
At some point it’s more cost-effective to find ways to cut the peak off of demand during those rare periods when it is unusually high. So the state has asked residents to take multiple sensible steps to reduce their electricity use, including setting thermostats to warmer settings, closing drapes to keep their houses cooler, limiting appliance use, and – yes – waiting until after 9 p.m. to charge electric vehicles if you can do so. It’s a request, not a mandate.
And charging at night, when electrical demand is low and some energy production goes to waste otherwise, is a good idea even in normal times. In a well-designed electricity market, electric vehicle owners would be incentivized to do so as a normal practice by lower electricity usage rates.
Still, California’s actions should cause us to ponder the future. Let’s not fool ourselves – not having enough energy to meet our needs is a form of energy poverty. If it happens rarely enough, and the only downside is mild inconvenience, we can live with it. But if it becomes more common, and if the ability to meet the basic demand for space cooling and heating in extreme weather events becomes more challenging, the ugly reality is that people will die.
And climate activists warn us that extreme temperature events will become more common, so we can expect this form of energy poverty to grow unless steps are taken to abate it.
Unfortunately, California is going the wrong direction in its push to rely wholly on renewables. First, the state has simply not built out the amount of wind and solar it needs to meet increased demand. The dirty secret environmentalists don’t want to acknowledge is that the state meets some of its excess demand with out-of-state coal power.
Second, because wind and solar are not reliable – the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun goes down in the evening even in California – and utility-scale battery backup is unreasonably expensive, over-reliance on those renewables leaves the state vulnerable to not having enough electricity even when peak demand is not far above normal. Hence the continued reliance on coal and the resurgent awareness of the need to keep the state’s last nuclear plant open.
So California’s situation should ring an alarm bell. In its quest to be a global leader on climate change, the state is moving faster to increase demand for electricity than it is to develop the carbon-free infrastructure to support that demand.
New York should look and listen, because it – unwisely – has chosen to run a race with California for global climate leadership. As a result, the New York State Independent System Operator has repeatedly warned that the state’s headlong plunge into renewables-based electrification puts the state at risk of reaching a “tipping point” where demand exceeds supply during extreme weather.
And as noted above, global warming activists tell us those extreme weather events are becoming more common, which means the risk is increasing.
So what should New York do? Instead of seeking glory in being a global leader on climate change, it should more cautiously follow and learn from the mistakes made by others scrambling for that position. This doesn’t mean doing nothing or being a laggard. It means proceeding sensibly. Specifically, it means developing a reliable low-carbon electricity supply and transmission system before trying to electrify everything.
Importantly, to maintain energy reliability while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, New York needs to stop treating renewables as a sacred ideal and utilize all low and zero carbon energy sources, including biofuels, hydrogen, and nuclear power.
Anything less than this “all of the above” approach leaves the state vulnerable to killer blackouts. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions may be a good goal, but is it worth moving so fast that we risk New Yorkers’ lives for it?